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.”