Another November 22 is upon us, and with it come the usual encomiums to the lost glories of “Camelot,” the glitzy term that has come to symbolize the Kennedy years but that actually was an invention after the fact. Never once used to describe the Kennedy administration while John Kennedy was alive, it was applied shortly after JFK’s assassination by a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy and the writer Theodore H. White, a Kennedy sycophant of the first order, in the pages of Life magazine.
With 2013 marking half a century since Kennedy’s fateful limousine ride in Dallas, the current revels are exceeding the revisionist frenzies of years past, with a seemingly endless parade of books, articles and television specials designed to assure us that, despite everything that has come to light about him since his death, JFK was a great president, or at least a very good president who would have been great had his life not been so cruelly cut short.
But facts can be stubborn things, and contrary to the media-generated myth of Camelot, Kennedy was a president of questionable character and meager accomplishment who almost certainly would have been impeached or forced to resign the presidency had even a fraction of what we now know been made public while he was still alive and in office.
The left-wing journalist Seymour Hersh, having spent years wading through the muck of pumped-up war stories, doctored medical records (contrary to the image of “vigor” he liked to project, Kennedy suffered from a variety of ailments and consumed a prodigious daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals), compulsive extramarital activity, Mafia ties and electoral shenanigans, was forced to reevaluate the man he once admired.
“Kennedy,” he said in an Atlantic Monthly web interview shortly after the publication of his 1997 expose The Dark Side of Camelot, “was much more corrupt than other postwar presidents, by a major factor. Much more manipulative, though Nixon was a close second. There’s nothing wonderful about Nixon – Watergate proved that – but I think that Nixon was an amateur compared to Kennedy….”
Particularly irksome to those who see through the Camelot haze is the claim by JFK apologists that had Kennedy lived he would have put an end to America’s involvement in Vietnam – this despite the fact that the U.S. commitment there expanded from a few hundred military advisers under Eisenhower to nearly 17,000 troops under Kennedy; that the men generally viewed as the architects of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, were holdovers from the Kennedy administration; that just two months before his death Kennedy told CBS’s Walter Cronkite, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw” and insisted to NBC’s Chet Huntley, “We are not there to see a war lost”; and that the speech Kennedy planned to give in Dallas the very day he was killed warned that a diminished American commitment in Vietnam would “only encourage Communist penetration.”
But then, Kennedy insiders have a history of revisionism that goes well beyond Vietnam. “Kennedy,” the liberal journalist Lawrence Wright observed, “had spent thirteen years in the House and Senate without passing a single important piece of legislation. And yet before his election to the presidency, people were comparing him with Franklin Roosevelt, with the young Churchill, with various movie stars, with Lindbergh.”
The World War II incident that bestowed on Kennedy an aura of heroism? “It was true,” wrote Wright, that “Kennedy had saved the life of one of his men on PT-109, on a mission in which Kennedy was supposed to torpedo a Japanese destroyer. Instead, the lumbering destroyer managed to slice the PT boat in half, killing two crewmen.
“Apparently, Kennedy had failed to notice the ship until it was bearing down on top of him. ‘Our reaction to the 109 thing had always been that we were kind of ashamed of our performance,’ admitted one of the crew, Barney Ross. ‘I had always thought it was a disaster.’ ”
Among close acquaintances Kennedy was candid about the incident. In his 1991 book A Question of Character, historian Thomas Reeves wrote that Kennedy told a friend, “My story about the collision is getting better all the time. Now I’ve got a Jew and a nigger in the story and with me being a Catholic, that’s great.”