JFK: Myth and man

November 16, 2013 

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Fifty years after Dallas, history shows John F. Kennedy to have been a complex, contradictory figure

Just one week after witnessing her husband's horrific assassination in a Dallas motorcade, Jacqueline Kennedy persuaded Life magazine columnist Theodore White to write her version of John F. Kennedy's epitaph.

Declaring his thousand-day administration to have been "one brief shining moment" -- lyrics borrowed from a Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical -- she insisted, "There'll be great presidents again, but there'll never be another Camelot."

The distraught widow engaged in the most obvious hagiography, layering her husband's mythology over the Arthurian myth of an idyllic kingdom.

So why have the label and legend endured a half-century? When Gallup asked Americans in 2010 to rate their approval of the most recent nine presidents, JFK emerged the clear winner, with 85 percent approving of his presidency. Ronald Reagan was the runner-up with 74 percent approval.

Jackie's evocative Camelot image resonated with a grieving nation and survived subsequent revelations about JFK's dark side.

By Nov. 22, 1963, Mrs. Kennedy had already created a shining portrait of the Kennedy presidency in her brief tenure as first lady. Only 31 when she entered the White House in 1961, her radiant beauty, fashionable style, and two beguiling children took America and the world by storm. Likewise, her husband, the youngest elected president, at 43, captured the vigor, energy, and urbanity of World War II's junior officers, replacing elderly Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Touch football games, sailing excursions, beach frolics, water skiing, pony rides -- all graced glossy color magazines featuring the Kennedy clan.

After heroic service in the South Pacific, mythologized in the 1963 Hollywood film "PT 109," JFK had launched his successful political career in 1946. Three terms in the House of Representatives, followed by two elections to the Senate, catapulted him to the presidency at a time when television was becoming the leading force in political media. During Eisenhower's 1952 presidential campaign, 20 percent of American households had TVs. By 1960 that percentage climbed to 80 percent.

In person and over the airwaves, JFK exuded charisma, a term derived from the Greek word for grace. German sociologist Max Weber assigned it to leaders who seemed to have superhuman qualities. We now know that Jack Kennedy was all-too-human, but his inspiring eloquence, sparkling wit, Hollywood looks, and dazzling smile appealed to people around the globe.

When Sen. John F. Kennedy brought his presidential campaign to Louisville, Ky., in October 1960, my young Roman Catholic mother placed my brothers and me directly in front of the podium so that we could see her new political hero. JFK's landmark victory gave American Catholics a sense of pride and promise.

Recently, someone asked me why Kennedy was viewed as a "god" after he died. His mother, Rose, wrote that she bore the agony of his state funeral by thinking of Mary, the Blessed Mother, who bravely kept vigil at the foot of the cross. That would make Rose's son Jesus, wouldn't it? My childhood Catholic parish distributed holy cards of the departed president that my mother kept in her prayer book until her own passing.

There is a standard mythological thread that runs through most cultures and religions about young heroes who succumb to tragic deaths, only to be resurrected in common memory.

If Rose linked JFK to the crucified Christ, her daughter-in-law followed the secular symbolism of Lincoln's funeral, instructing Kennedy acolytes to borrow the military pageantry used in 1865 to honor America's first assassinated president.

The caisson bearing the coffin to the Capitol, the riderless horse, with boots reversed in the stirrups, and full military honors at Arlington Cemetery all gave the final tribute to President Kennedy a heroic patina.

And then there was young John F. Kennedy Jr., who turned 3 the day of his father's funeral. Whose heart didn't ache to see black-veiled Jackie lean over to her little boy, whisper in his ear that he could "say good-bye" to his daddy, and watch the youngster come to full attention, executing a perfect salute toward his father's flag-draped casket?

Beyond these images that seared the American mind, how can we judge the Kennedy legacy? In his January 1961 farewell speech to Massachusetts, JFK delineated four criteria by which "the high court of history" measures the success or failure of public officials: courage, judgment, integrity, and dedication. As with most politicians, his record was mixed in each category.

He had exhibited courage by volunteering for PT boat duty and saving his crew members after a Japanese destroyer collided with their craft. Overcoming war wounds and physical frailties required courage, yet Kennedy deceived the public by hiding the extent of his illnesses and the array of pharmaceuticals used to treat them.

It took courage and judgment for him to stand strong against his military adviseors, who wanted him to invade Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and to use the right combination of strength and integrity with Khrushchev in de-escalating the nuclear standoff. Yet his self-described mishandling of the November 1963 coup in South Vietnam, just three weeks before his own death, revealed a lack of judgment and courage to defy those members of the administration who supported removal of President Diem.

No one can say with certainty if the Vietnam War would have followed the same disastrous course President Lyndon Johnson pursued, but we know that JFK had no definitive answers for Southeast Asia's challenges when he died.

Kennedy came late to the civil rights movement, exhibiting a distinct lack of political courage by addressing the plight of African-Americans only incrementally for more than two years. But his ultimate declaration of racial equality as a "moral issue" that was "as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution" moved the U.S. toward what became, after his assassination, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

His dedication to the public good in founding the Peace Corps, promoting health care for the elderly, and promulgating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty cannot be diminished. The space program, however, which encapsulated his inspiring eloquence to challenge Americans in science and technology, was really a Cold War competition to beat the Soviets to the moon. That somewhat cynical goal shouldn't diminish the fact that we did so and simultaneously launched the modern technological revolution.

Although the conflict between the free and communist worlds spawned the Peace Corps and NASA, it also produced the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and propelled the Kennedy administration toward unsavory and failed efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

This lack of judgment and integrity in public affairs also applied to JFK's private liaisons outside his marriage, including with a Mafia moll, an East German spy, the sister-in-law of Newsweek editor Ben Bradlee, and a White House intern.

Kennedy's mother preached to her privileged children St. Luke's Gospel: "Of those to whom much is given, much is required." While living up to this edict by devoting his life to public service, John Kennedy couldn't overcome the deeply ingrained sense that the ordinary rules of life didn't apply to him. Therein lay his fearless pursuit of risks, leading him to his epic achievements and his prodigious flaws.

Barbara A. Perry, senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, is the author of "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch" and "Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier"; baperry@virginia.edu.

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