This isn’t going to be a good week for me. Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the death in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy, and between now and then I expect a complete media blitz—make that a blitzkrieg—of stories, films, docudramas, book reviews, and counterfactual explorations about the event and, by extension, about all that the nation lost with the death of the brilliant but ill-fated president. Dallas policemen, such media duffers as Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer, Lee Harvey Oswald’s dentist, Jack Ruby’s rabbi, everyone still alive who has any memory of or connection with the assassination will be called upon to cough up his driblet of information.
I happen to be a member of that minority—perhaps in America the minoritiest of all minorities—who doesn’t get it. I understand the sadness of a still youngish man killed in the presence of his wife before a vast television audience. What I don’t get is the glamor of, the intense emotion surrounding, the general significance of John F. Kennedy. Nor do I understand the eagerness of so many of my countrymen to make the Kennedy family America’s equivalent of the royals.
When Jack Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, I was twenty-three years old, and his race against Richard Nixon would be my first opportunity to vote in a presidential election. I was at that time a strong liberal, and I much resented that Kennedy’s father’s money proved crucial in helping him defeat Hubert Humphrey, a better man with a stronger record, in the primaries. In the election, I decided I could not vote for either Kennedy or Nixon, and the fact is that today, even though my politics have changed considerably, if both men were alive and running for the presidency in 2016, I still wouldn’t vote for either of them.
John F. Kennedy turned out to be a most mediocre president. He was at best hesitant in his support of the civil rights movement, the clearest moral event of the second half of the twentieth century. Nor did he pass any domestic legislation of major importance. In foreign policy, he made a great mess of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and with a less than ept bit of brinksmanship brought the Soviet Union and the United States as close to nuclear war as they ever got. He was the man who first put the American toe in the swamp of Vietnam, though his successor Lyndon Johnson would take the heat of liberal history for that misgotten war.
The specialty of the Kennedy administration was public relations, image-making—and an image, it is well to remember, is the thing that is not really there. The Kennedy years, or so we were endlessly told, were American Camelot, years in which culture had come to Washington, elegance to the White House, good looks and intellectual brilliance to the Oval Office. Intellectuals swooned, the higher media drooled. Think Charles Collingwood following Jacqueline Kennedy around the White House, enraptured as the first lady, in her best Miss Porter School whispering lisp, modestly explained how in her redecorations she had elevated the joint above the low standard of those pathetic philistines, the Eisenhowers.
Of course it was all baloney. None of it could withstand close scrutiny. When the scrutiny came it revealed that Jack Kennedy didn’t quite write the book, Profiles in Courage, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. The reality behind those touching photographs of his picture-perfect children cavorting round the Oval Office was their father bonking movie stars, mafia molls, and adolescent interns in the upstairs bedrooms.
The rest of the Kennedy family was scarcely better. The father, the founding father as he was called in the title of a book about him by Richard Whalen, had a dodgy financial past, was a major-league philanderer, and on balance didn’t find Adolf Hitler all that bad a sort. His brother Bobby was a bully who had worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy and, once he had power on his side, was able to make even Jimmy Hoffa seem sympathetic. The youngest brother, Teddy, later to become a great liberal hero, failed badly at Chappaquiddick, letting a young woman drown before endangering his own political career. As for the widow Kennedy, after a decent interval, she did what the cynical Gore Vidal said she was always about anyway, and went for the money in marrying the monstrous Aristotle Onassis. Such was the reality behind Camelot.
None of this is exactly a secret. Yet so little of it seems to have penetrated Americans, who, against all evidence, continue to look upon the Kennedys as our uncrowned kings. We shall all see this vividly on display the whole of this coming week. As for me, until next Monday I plan to read no newspaper, avoid the Internet, keep my television set on ESPN, and pretend I am living in Patagonia.