Fifty years ago today was one day after John F. Kennedy’s funeral, and two days before Thanksgiving.
You may have been able to tell my ambivalence about Kennedy and his assassination and legacy from the previous week of posts. On the one hand, since my days at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Madison, I’ve been interested in Kennedy, and since I became a media geek, I’ve been fascinated at how the Kennedy assassination was covered by this new thing called TV news.
Perhaps the reactions of some to his death are understandable given that no president had been assassinated in the memory of almost everyone alive in 1963. (William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.) Franklin Roosevelt died 18 years earlier, but the better comparison in terms of trauma wasn’t FDR’s death but the Pearl Harbor attack Dec. 7, 1941. (Too few people will remember that a week from Saturday.)
On the other hand, the term “revisionist history” must have been created for, if not by, Kennedy’s postmortem myth-makers, Jackie Kennedy, speechwriter Ted Sorenson, and historian Theodore S. White. The past week has demonstrated that many people who lived through Kennedy’s assassination haven’t let reality get in the way of their memories about how inspiring he was, because apparently a lot of Baby Boomers needed to be inspired by someone in authority.
Everything people who were alive when Kennedy died knows what they remember from the coverage of a sycophantic news media that covered up pertinent information like his health. (As for his extramarital flings, I pose a question I asked in print about Bill Clinton’s extramarital flings: If someone is willing to violate vows made before God and man, why should he be trusted in anything else?)
What we know about Kennedy is less than we think we know. From all accounts, he was an actual war hero to the survivors of his PT boat. He apparently volunteered for active Navy duty in spite of his father’s efforts (which were successful with his two younger brothers) to get him cushy desk duty for the duration of World War II. And we have barely 1,000 days of presidency, which followed a House and Senate career with his friend, Sen. Joe McCarthy. (Yes, that McCarthy.) He looked and sounded like the president people wanted, but image and reality are not the same thing.
I read a blog that claimed that after the Cuban Missile Crisis he was much more interested in peace with the Soviet Union and looking to get the U.S. disentangled from Vietnam. The evidence on each is unpersuasive. He started the Peace Corps, and Peace Corps volunteers would say that was worthwhile. Everything else — civil rights, tax cuts and the space program come to mine — were accomplishments of his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, or overstatements in terms of JFK’s actual interest in them. And in reality, whatever he did in terms of curbing the Soviets was insufficient to actually defeating the Soviets, and that took until the 1980s and presidents determined to end the Soviet Union.
So we’re left with image and memory of a time people who were alive then think was simpler. (The past is always simpler than the present, and the future seems simpler than the present.) Maybe he was a good father, but a good father doesn’t play around on his children’s mother. Kennedy simply wasn’t president long enough to have a significant record. When, early in NBC-TV’s coverage on Nov. 22, 1963, Chet Huntley said “this is no time for speculation; facts are all that are warranted,” he was right then and now. Kennedy’s myth machine created Camelot, based on a Broadway play that, like much of Kennedy’s presidency, was fiction.
One wonders when we’re going to grow up and stop looking to politicians for inspiration that should come from elsewhere, or nowhere. Politicians, whether Democratic (Barack Obama, Tammy Baldwin, whichever Democrat is going to lose to Scott Walker next year) or Republican (Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul) or nonpartisan, are interested in preserving and increasing their own power first and foremost. (One word: Watergate.) Everything a politician has, in terms of power, is taken from you. Those are cynical statements. John F. Kennedy was a cynic.