It was fifty years ago this week that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and this anniversary has naturally spawned a host of articles and television programs on the Kennedy administration, many gushing about lost Camelot. America was the shining city on the hill, filled with hope and a beacon to peoples everywhere, and then an assassin’s bullet ushered in a time of despair, the age of Vietnam, social upheaval, violence, burning cities and rampant cynicism. The golden age of America had abruptly ended when it had hardly begun.
Kennedy’s administration does seem a watershed, and indeed, a national feeling of pride and hope did give way to seemingly endless troubles. But this is of course not only too simplistic (being Black in the forties and fifties would hardly fill one with hope), but also to a great extent Camelot was a sham. Only after his death was the metaphor of Camelot applied to JFK’s brief time in office – by his widow. A half century later historians have exposed the reality of the Kennedy administration, but Camelot has nevertheless become a compelling American myth, evoked by the likes of Clinton and Obama.
The two beautiful people, Arthur and Guinevere, with their equally beautiful children bringing a new sense of culture and class to the White House, especially in the wake of the far less colorful Eisenhower, this was the image. They listened to string quartets rather than pop, and Jackie was the paragon of style, once again especially when compared with the former First Lady. This was not just the First Family, but the family every American dreamed of being.
In reality Jackie was more often found shopping than enjoying Beethoven and five years after Jack’s death married one of the richest men on the planet, better to serve that retail habit. Her husband, meanwhile, was screwing every upscale woman he could get his presidential hands on, enjoying a freedom from media attention that Clinton must have envied. His bad back was famously known and evoked sympathy, but few seemed to understand this meant he was constantly pumped up on painkillers, even when making critical decisions, such as going to war the USSR. He appointed his brother Attorney General, a questionable act in itself, and ordered surveillance and wire-taps on any number of politicians, businessmen and journalists. For all his grand rhetoric about equality he only took action in the South when increasing violence made the problem impossible to ignore.
He has a noteworthy achievement, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Peace Corps was a wonderful idea. He may have been a calming influence during the Bay of Pigs crisis, but he could have derailed the whole stupid affair from the start. The pledge to go to the moon was stirring, but given the state of technology at the time, it was as hollow as Bush’s pledge to go to Mars, though Kennedy may have actually believed in what he said. And like Ronald Regan, he made America feel good.
No, Kennedy’s real legacy was becoming a martyr and a myth, an object of veneration. Beyond that he was an insignificant President.
But what if he had lived? No Vietnam, no violence in the streets, no counter-culture and a better America? Hardly. He fell for the domino theory, and Eisenhower’s 600 American advisors became 17,000 troops. And Johnson inherited Kennedy’s advisors, the “best and brightest,” who would play him like a violin when it came to increasing the American presence in Vietnam. More important, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Kennedy could have been anywhere near as successful as LBJ in getting civil rights legislation through the Congress.
Getting shot made JFK, at least for a while, one of the greatest Presidents, and it has been suggested that the same happened to Lincoln. What nonsense. Lincoln dealt with the greatest crisis facing America since the Revolution, ended slavery and enfranchised Blacks. Ironically, this week is also the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, words that have achieved a statue second only to the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. This is why no one remembers Garfield and McKinley. Lincoln was great; Kennedy looked great.
A final thought. The people around JFK would refer to excellent weather as “Kennedy weather.” Well, in the Second Reich they called it “Kaiser weather” and in the Third Reich “Führer weather.”
The Destruction of Kennedy
The assassin came down like the wolf on the fold,
With his Carcano all loaded and ready to hold;
And the hate in his heart burned deadly and hot,
As he stationed himself for the ultimate shot.
Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
The car with his target was suddenly seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when fall turns them red,
The man from the White House would so soon be dead.
For the Agent of Death braced his gun on the sill,
And looked in the face of the man he would kill;
And the rifle spat fire, one shot then two,
And the life of a President is just about through.
And there lay the victim, America’s pride,
While the eyes of his agents, they looked far and wide,
But too late to stop now the bark of the gun,
And thus in an instant was Camelot done.
And the cameras were rolling, the images bleak,
And the hope of the nation was no more to speak;
And the crowds were all silent, the cheers gone away,
And shocked were the people in Dallas that day.
And the lovers of John Boy are loud in their wail,
And there stands the widow, all bloody and pale;
And the man from Hyannis, by destiny called,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of Oswald.