Kennedy’s 40-year-old version

By Steve Michalkow

This past year or so has brought about a perfect storm of death, reflection, and publication for America’s new favorite literary genre: blind hero worship of President Kennedy.

The recent death of Arthur Schlesinger, the first and foremost author of Kennedy fawning, along with a growing desire to find similarities between the current quagmire in Iraq and the chaos of Vietnam, have made a fetish of the 1960s. The result has been an overgrowth of praise, love, and belated glory for America’s old and waning royal family. After all, what investigation of the ’60s would be complete without contemplating all the nuances of the handsome wonder boy from Massachusetts?

An endless barrage of feature articles, polemics, and books has been penned in recent years in the hope of immortalizing our 35th president, with seemingly no liberally minded news source unwilling to produce some sort of Kennedy coverage. Amid this deluge, however, one will not find a real investigation into the life of the former president. Instead, we’re left with nothing more than the propagation of the myth of JFK.

The strength of John F. Kennedy’s legend has more to do with what might have been rather than what had been accomplished. If one is free from the bonds of historical fact, then the glorification process is limited only by the author’s imagination. In the case of President Kennedy, his imagined glory revolves around three lost chances at peace that his continued rule might have accomplished: the easement of racial tensions in the United States, the relaxation of the Cold War, and the quickened end to the war in Vietnam. What an amazing feat of leadership and foresight that administration would have embodied! How unfortunate it is, then, that Jack would most likely have done the opposite.

The most generous description one can give to Kennedy’s civil rights policy would be to call it “prudent,” but “indifferent” or “suspicious” would probably be more accurate. As for the Cold War, short of a few rhetorical flourishes about world solidarity, John Kennedy rather relished his role as Cold Warrior (a true knight of the round table, to keep with the Camelot analogy). As for the lynchpin in the Kennedy mythos—the potential for a less bloody end to the Vietnam conflict—Kennedy certainly did enough to damage this country’s moral standing in Vietnam by authorizing the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Yet despite all this, Kennedy still represents a liberal’s dream for progressive change.

So why does the Kennedy mystique continue to inspire sympathetic public reflection? The answer is found in the current issue of Vanity Fair, whose lead story illustrates the essentially self-conscious manner in which this mythology was created from the opening days of the Kennedy administration. His pride and self-confidence damaged by his small margin of victory over Richard Nixon and his poor health, Kennedy conscripted photographers to construct an image of the presidential family as strong, healthy, and admirable. The photographs largely succeeded in that regard and presented the image of the perfect family. And yet, as the now publicly known details of the Kennedy family’s private lifestyle demonstrate, these are empty images.

Kennedy was as tricky a politician as Dick Nixon, and ultimately a more successful one, for his fictions have secured the Kennedy legacy far beyond the life span of the administration. The cult of Kennedy runs deep in the political hearts of liberals for whom the dream of a great leader who ushers in change serves as a powerful call to action. But there’s a fine line between this type of hero worship and the cult of personality found in totalitarian states.