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The Media Myth Of Camelot


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With Caroline Kennedy’s New York Times op-ed article endorsing the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama because, in her words, she wants a president like her father; a president who, among other things, “holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards,” it seemed only appropriate to give an encore airing, with some revisions, to the following Media Monitor column that originally ran in 2003:

“Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He talked a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab. Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame….”
– James Ellroy, American Tabloid

Assassination does wonders for a public figure’s place in history. John F. Kennedy was a president of questionable character and meager accomplishment, but his untimely and violent death, followed by decades of unceasing image control by the Kennedy family and their media apologists, has helped sustain one of the great myths of American history – a myth that there once existed in Washington a magical kingdom called Camelot, ruled by a dashing prince whose wisdom and bravery were matched only by his unshakeable devotion to his beautiful princess.

So powerful is the Camelot legend that the many seamy discoveries of recent years have managed only to tarnish, but hardly to destroy, the reputation of a man 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.

Even the very term that has come to symbolize the Kennedy era – Camelot – is an invention after the fact. The notion of the Kennedy White House as Camelot has always been, as even Kennedy press secretary and longtime loyalist Pierre Salinger admitted, a “fraud” – the word was never once used to describe the Kennedy administration while Kennedy was alive.

The Camelot-Kennedy connection was nothing more than a widow’s successful attempt to glamorize her husband’s legacy. Not long after Kennedy’s murder, Jacqueline Kennedy, quoting the lyrics of the title song from a popular Broadway show, implored the writer Theodore White: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

White dutifully recorded her words in an article for Life magazine, and instantly and forevermore the Kennedy years became Camelot in retrospect. It is necessary to keep all this in mind when reflecting on any aspect of the Kennedy administration. Nothing was as it seemed, and the truth about those years began to seep out only after Kennedy had been dead for a decade.

In fact, the mythmaking about JFK was under way well before he was elected president – being born to a politically ambitious, fabulously wealthy and well-connected father has its benefits.

“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.”

Kennedy’s best-selling books, Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage, which helped sell the notion that he was some sort of intellectual? Both were largely ghostwritten.

The World War II incident that bestowed on Kennedy an aura of heroism?

“It was true 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,” writes Wright. “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.’”

Wright continues: “Was this heroism? Or just luck – that Kennedy was still alive and not brought before a court-martial? The Navy rejected his application for a Silver Star, and it wasn’t until a friend of the Kennedy family, James Forrestal, became secretary of the Navy, that Kennedy received a life-saving award.”

Among close acquaintances Kennedy was candid about his heroics. In his 1991 book A Question of Character, historian Thomas Reeves quotes the son of a Kennedy intimate as saying, “He told her it was a question of whether they were going to give him a medal or throw him out.” And in 1946, according to Reeves, 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.”

Reeves, by the way, learned that taking a hard-eyed look at JFK is to automatically be viewed as nasty and mean-spirited. Whereas his earlier biography of Joseph McCarthy garnered widespread acclaim, the Kennedy book drew decidedly mixed reviews – with critics invariably taking issue not so much with Reeves’s facts as with his allegedly negative tone.

It’s become fairly routine: Every few years some enterprising reporter or biographer unearths new, unflattering information about Kennedy. The inevitable cycle of response – from the media, liberal intellectuals, and, of course, the Kennedy family – is one of shock, followed by denial, followed by silence. Until the next round of revelations, at which point the cycle begins anew – shock, denial, silence.

Seymour Hersh is an investigative journalist with solidly leftist credentials. For thirty years, just about everything he wrote was lapped up by appreciative liberal readers – until he took on the Kennedy legend in his 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot. While offering little fresh material, Hersh did add a considerable amount of corroborative background and detail to stories unearthed by earlier authors, and for that both he and the book were trashed by liberal reviewers.

After spending years searching 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 (“The 1960 presidential election,” Hersh flatly states, “was stolen”), the liberal muckraker was forced to reevaluate a man he once admired.

“Kennedy,” said Hersh in an Atlantic Monthly web interview shortly after the publication of The Dark Side of Camelot, “was much more corrupt than other post-war 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…. [Kennedy] was above the law; he didn’t think anything could stop him.”

Particularly irksome to Hersh and others who see through the Camelot haze is the claim by Kennedy apologists that had their man lived, he would have put an end to America’s involvement in Vietnam – this despite the fact that the U.S. commitment in Vietnam 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 in fact holdovers from the Kennedy administration; that just two months before his death Kennedy told Walter Cronkite, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw” and insisted to Chet Huntley that “We are not there to see a war lost”; and that the very speech Kennedy planned to give in Dallas the day he was killed warned that a diminished American commitment in Vietnam would “only encourage Communist penetration.”

The reason for the eagerness on the part of so many on the left to make over Kennedy’s feelings about – and plans for – Vietnam is really quite simple: Kennedy, whatever his failings, was a classic cold warrior who presided over a military buildup that, proportionately, trumped the Reagan buildup of the 1980’s and whose Inaugural address put the world on notice: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Liberals haven’t acted or spoken that way since the Johnson administration, and perhaps Kennedy, had he lived, would have moved to the left along with his brothers Robert and Ted and most of the Democratic Party. But it’s impossible to know for certain, and today’s liberals are stuck with the inconvenient reality that the Kennedy whose legacy they claim as their own was in fact far closer to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in terms of his foreign policy and world view.

Hence the desperate need of Kennedy court historians and media fellow travelers to posit all sorts of fanciful scenarios about how Kennedy would have shed his hawk’s wings and sprouted dove’s feathers had he lived and been reelected in 1964.

Of course, Kennedy insiders have a history of revisionism that goes beyond Vietnam. When the existence of Richard Nixon’s wiretaps and secret White House taping system was revealed in the early 1970’s, Kennedy loyalists were among the loudest critics, contrasting the sinister behavior of Tricky Dick with the high ideals of their golden Prince Jack. But several years later it emerged that Nixon was a mere piker in such matters, at least compared to Kennedy:

“The FBI and the CIA had installed dozens of wiretaps and listening devices on orders and requests from the attorney general [Robert Kennedy],” writes Richard Reeves in his 1993 study President Kennedy: Profile of Power. “Transcripts of secret tapes of steel executives, congressmen, lobbyists, and reporters routinely ended up on the president’s desk. The targets ranged from writers who criticized the president … to members of Kennedy’s own staff.”

And, adds Reeves, a White House taping system was “installed by the Secret Service with help from military aides early in 1962, on Kennedy’s orders. When he thought of it, the president used hidden switches in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, and his living room in Hyannis Port to secretly record meetings and phone calls.”

Of course, none of the above was even touched on this week as the media’s talking heads and print hacks, dutifully and unquestioningly conveying Caroline Kennedy’s remarks about her father, served once again to reinforce the seemingly invincible myth of Camelot.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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