With the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination looming, Alex Massie considers the man behind the heroic myth – and what his legacy might have been
LAST year, Mimi Alford, who was once a junior staffer in John F Kennedy’s White House, released a slim memoir recalling her affair with the president. Few people paid it much attention, perhaps because Kennedy’s priapic philandering long ago ceased to be “news”.
Even so, Alford’s little book was a useful addition to the Kennedy catalogue. She recalled, for instance, how once while she was swimming with the president in the White House pool, Kennedy told his 19-year old intern that Dave Powers, his special assistant, “looks a little tense” and asked Alford to “take care of it”. By “take care of it” Kennedy meant Alford should perform a sex act on Powers.
“Dave was jolly and obedient as I stood in the shallow end of the pool and performed my duties,” Alford wrote. “The president silently watched.” Perhaps this was meant to reward Powers for his willingness to procure women for the president. Even so, there are shades of Caligula’s court here.
This was the private squalor behind the public glamour of Camelot – a president whose low view of women was matched by the relish with which he was prepared to humiliate his own staff. For kicks, you know. If Jack Kennedy was not a worse person than Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, he wasn’t a better man either. And that’s setting a pretty low bar for decency.
But the myth will never die. The cult lives on. The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is another chance to for baby-boomer Kennedy hagiographers to recall the day American “innocence” perished. (A more reasonable date for that fatality might be 6 August, 1945, the day Hiroshima was destroyed.)
None of the actual detail matters. Because Kennedy had style. Ignore the often sordid reality and concentrate on the lost president’s youth, his vigour, his energy. Remember instead how America was cheated of his promise and posit an improbable future in which the United States would have been spared the agonies and tumult of the 1960s if only Jack Kennedy had lived.
Until then, the Kennedy courtiers would have you believe, the United States was united by a common purpose; after the assassination it split asunder, wrecked by civil unrest at home and war abroad. Kennedy’s murder was a watershed moment in American history and nothing would ever be the same again.
It was mostly hogwash, though hogwash made compelling by the fact it all happened on television. In an article for Esquire looking forward to the 1960s, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, already dazzled by Kennedy’s promise, complained that the 1950s had been “a listless interlude, quickly forgotten” but “at periodic moments in our history, our country has paused on the threshold of a new epoch in our national life […] aware that it must advance if it is to preserve its national vitality and identity. One feels that we are approaching such a moment now.”
Kennedy would be the embodiment of those hopes and dreams. If Kennedy made mistakes – and even court stenographers occasionally grant he did – they were at least well-intentioned errors, not to be confused with the wilful malignancy demonstrated by his classless – that is, unstylish – opponents.
Kennedy’s reputation has slipped a little in recent years, but the power of the Camelot cult continues to work some kind of voodoo magic. As recently as 2009, a consortium of “presidential scholars” ranked Kennedy the sixth greatest president in the history of the United States. Polls of actual voters tend to rank Kennedy just as high. In 2011, nearly one in five Democratic voters rated Kennedy the greatest president of them all. All this for three years’ work and, rather more significantly, a promise unfulfilled.
Would Kennedy have “saved” America from the agonies of Vietnam? Perhaps, but the balance of probability is that JFK would, as Lyndon Johnson did, ramp up America’s commitment to south-east Asia. By the time Kennedy was shot there were 16,000 American military “advisers” in Vietnam. Most of the men who would run the war – the “Best and the Brightest” in David Halberstam’s sardonic verdict – were Kennedy men.
If Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon agreed on anything during the 1960 election, it was the need for a more robust form of anti-Communism. In fact, Kennedy alleged, the Eisenhower White House, in which Nixon had served as vice-president, was too weak. The “missile gap” conjured by Kennedy was a phantom, but it served its purpose. So, of course, did the dirty dealings in Cook County, Illinois that gave Kennedy the thinnest of presidential victories. (Kennedy’s victory by 0.1 per cent of the vote itself confounds the fond belief America in 1960 was united in a cheerful common purpose.)
The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was planned during the Eisenhower presidency but it was approved by Kennedy. It was Kennedy, in his inauguration address, who proclaimed the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”. Suggesting he would have saved the United States from Vietnam is, in the end, little more than wishful thinking.
It is true that Kennedy resisted his hawkish courtiers during the Cuban missile crisis. True too, however, that the crisis was at least in part the consequence of Kennedy’s own miscalculations. And true as well that it ended without victors. The Russians pulled back from Cuba; the Americans quietly removed missiles from Turkey.
It is telling, however, that Kennedy’s admirers focus almost exclusively on foreign affairs. Domestically, his presidency was, to put it kindly, stalled and, judged less kindly, on the brink of ignominious failure. The Kennedy charm – the Kennedy glamour – worked on television, but it failed on Capitol Hill.
His civil rights bill was not so much stalled as shipwrecked. It would take Lyndon Johnson’s political and legislative genius to finally break the US Senate’s iron resistance. In fact, Kennedy’s death did more to advance the great cause of civil rights than anything he had done in life. Even LBJ’s advisers cautioned that the new president not waste his time on such an obviously lost cause as civil rights. To which Johnson replied: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
And it was the combination of civil rights and Vietnam that set the United States ablaze in the 1960s. These crises did not arise because Jack Kennedy had been shot. The road not taken would have led to trouble too. America’s culture wars – which still endure – did not begin because Kennedy’s presidency was so abruptly terminated in such a horrifying fashion.
The trauma of Kennedy’s murder was real (and magnified by television) and it hit America and the world like a shockwave. Even now the dignity of Jackie Kennedy and the little children at JFK’s funeral remains pitiful. If Kennedy’s death teaches us anything, however, it is that it is a mistake to vest too extravagant a measure of hope in any one man, even a president. The Cult of the Presidency did not begin nor, alas, end with John F Kennedy, but few occupants of the Oval Office have benefited so much from it.