Today is a sad anniversary, whatever you think of John F. Kennedy and his much debated legacy: A Catholic who announced in advance that his faith would not affect his public decisions as president – no surprise, since it didn’t much affect his private behavior, or that of his father or two brothers, either. A political moderate and Cold Warrior, who got us into Vietnam, with its troubling sequels for the nation. A man whose family and followers have been trying to argue ever since that he was really more like a modern progressive who would have reversed course in Southeast Asia, if he hadn’t been killed by a sniper in Dallas, fifty years ago today.
One of my earliest political memories is of working-stiff friends of the family, Catholic men angry about the elite mantra of the day, best summed up in a Washington clergymen’s sermon two days after the assassination: “We have been present at a new crucifixion. All of us had a part in the slaying of the President.”
The adults I knew back then were solid men who felt pride in a Catholic president, even if they didn’t agree with everything he did. But they resented the implication that, in the strange alchemy of elite opinion, “we” – not the liberal editorialists of course – but really “they,” in their religious and social conservatism, had killed the liberalizing Kennedy. They, not the actual shooter and Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald who, like school shooters today, was more a disturbed soul than reflective of anything larger in “American culture.”
The blaming of “America” was ideologically driven madness. Spiritually, it was what C.S. Lewis, who died the same day as JFK, once called, “detraction masquerading as the virtue of contrition,” concocted for unholy partisan purposes to make it appear that JFK was somehow a liberal martyr.
By strange national osmosis, brother Bobby Kennedy’s murder in 1968, at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian angered by his support of Israel, also became part of some national and Kennedy family myth – of what, we’re still not certain, but it was supposed to implicate “us all.”
There’s the Camelot myth, of course, created after the fact and not wholly fiction. Kennedy brought charm, intelligence, sophistication, and culture to the White House, and a youthfulness that – in retrospect – seems more and more like the relative innocence and “vigor” of the nation itself prior to the 1960s. Both sometimes seem to have headed into eclipse ever since.
Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who defeated Nazism in Europe and knew how to run things, was content as president to make sure the government functioned – plainly and efficiently, efficiently because plainly. It was not everything you might desire from a modern presidency, but it was recognizably American and workmanlike.
JFK was not as different from Ike as he has often been portrayed by later mythmakers. Ike was unimpressed with the team of “the best and the brightest” – silly liberal hubris, as subsequent events in Vietnam and Cuba would show – that JFK assembled around him. Ike represented the old American practicality, realism, and modesty.
Kennedy, the real Kennedy, largely practiced those same virtues, but also knew how to make use of the new fascination with celebrity, intellectualism, and grandiosity. (James Piereson’s 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution is essential reading on the perception versus the reality.) He was perfectly suited to become the first president of the Television Age.
The Kennedys weren’t nouveaux riches. Papa Joe had made his money from booze and other businesses decades earlier, and bought his way into respectability and acceptance. And even into being a symbol for the dreams of struggling Catholics.
My own mother, an old-style ethnic Catholic in the Northeast, would spit nails at the thought of voting for a wealthy WASP like one of the Bushes, but was untroubled, tickled even, to peer through the Kennedy compound’s security fence in the 1960s at the mansion and the yachts floating nearby.
As presidents go, Kennedy wasn’t especially bad, or good. Serious historians tend to rank him a little above the middle of the historical pack. He created the impression of action and inspiration, which is worth something, especially in modern media culture. But in his three years in office, his record was pretty thin: some helpful tax cuts, cautious civil rights moves, tough talk on Communism.
But he also managed, in an early encounter, to get taken to the cleaners by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who thereafter thought him weak. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba didn’t help. Hence, Khrushchev’s later sending of missiles to Cuba, though JFK did hold the tiller steady during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Worst of all, he left us with Vietnam.
In light of these realities, “the eternal flame” set up by Jacqueline Kennedy at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery (Jackie also concocted the Camelot myth with Theodore H. White) seems more than a bit overblown.
And yet, JFK’s death was a tragedy, for the country and for the world. It’s tempting to speculate what might have happened if Oswald had not carried out his murderous errand – or missed.
Would Jack and Jackie’s cosmopolitan White House, with ties to Hollywood and academic elites, have kept the country out of the cultural swamp of the late 1960s and 70s?
Would the race riots have happened? Or in the face of JFK’s popularity among American blacks and his personal charm – a word that doesn’t come to mind for his successor Lyndon Johnson – would relations between blacks and whites have become quite so poisoned for quite so long?
Would JFK’s own Democratic Party have taken its errand into the wilderness of the Counterculture? Would they have embraced so vehemently the abortion regime, radical feminism, the whole gay agenda?
We’ll never know. But it’s safe to say that more than an American president was wounded and died in Dallas fifty years ago.