Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This means that all things JFK are back in vogue from ghoulish rehashing of the details of his murder (what Mona Charen aptly termed “assassination porn”), to the generally moronic conspiracy theories about the events of 11/22/63 as well as fierce debates about the legacy of the 35th president.
To some extent this is understandable. Kennedy’s death was probably the single most traumatic event for most Americans in between the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Moreover, as we have already been told endlessly and at length in just about every publication online or in print, Kennedy’s death while still young and handsome and before his successor’s administration was mired in Vietnam and the turmoil of the late 1960s has transformed him into a symbol of an earlier, less cynical era. But while conservatives and liberals are fighting over Kennedy and baby boomers are wallowing in Camelot nostalgia, some perspective is in order. Though he ranks high among our presidents in terms of symbolism, even in a week such as this it is not out place to point out that the obsession about his 1,000 days in office is completely disproportionate to his historical significance. If this anniversary is probably the last time anyone will make much of a fuss about Kennedy it is because once the generation that remembers where they were when they found out he was shot is gone, few will care about him.
To note this fact is not to dismiss Kennedy or to insult his memory. It is due to the fact that his presidency must, at best, be given a grade of incomplete simply because it was cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets. But unless we, as Kennedy apologists are wont to do, play the “what if” game and assume that if he had lived he would have altered course and avoided escalation in Vietnam (as Lyndon Johnson operating under the influence of Kennedy Cabinet holdovers did not) and emphasized civil rights (as Johnson did), the argument for him as anything other than a transitional figure with slim accomplishments is not very convincing. If Kennedy’s presidency is remembered for anything other than the tragic manner in which it ended once the baby boom generation is no longer around, it will be because it was the first in which style was more important than substance as the magic of JFK’s charisma was conveyed to the nation via the magic of television.
As Joe McGinnis memorably wrote in The Selling of the President, Kennedy’s administration wooed the public in a manner that even the most popular of his predecessors had never quite tried:
We forgave, followed and accepted because we liked the way he looked. And he had a pretty wife. Camelot was fun, even for the peasants, as long as it was televised to their huts.
That pretty much sums it up. The JFK mythmakers’ success was rooted in the way Kennedy appealed to America’s desire for a hero. He looked and sounded the part and though he accomplished relatively little, the tag stuck.
Of course, Kennedy had many outstanding qualities and some attractive elements in his biography. He was a genuine war hero and a man with the sort of grace in public that is a rarity in politicians. His presidency was also not without momentous events. JFK’s legion of admirers in the media and in the ranks of popular historians have elevated the Cuban Missile Crisis into the Gettysburg of the Cold War, but though he deserves credit for avoiding armed conflict, it was not quite the triumph that the Kennedy myth machine made it out to be. It was precipitated by Kennedy’s terrible performance in his first summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that left the latter thinking he was an indecisive pushover. And it would be years before most Americans realized that the deal to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba that was presented as such a triumph for Kennedy was offset by the U.S. withdrawal of missiles from Turkey. Kennedy’s role in the Civil Rights struggle is also a keynote of attempts to lionize, him but the fact was that he did little more than his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower and not nearly as much as Lyndon Johnson.
If both conservatives and liberals wish to claim him, it is not because any of this matters as much as the work of other, more important presidents but because of the genius of the public-relations package his followers managed to sell the country both during and after his time in office. That’s why conservatives and liberals think it worth the bother to fight over him. Author Ira Stoll is right to claim in his interesting new book that Kennedy’s instincts were conservative and that if you transpose his positions on most issues in the late ’50s and early ’60s to today’s political landscape, his fiscal conservatism, belief in tax cuts, and assertion of a vigorous anti-Communism and strong defense fits more comfortably on the right than the left. Would he have shifted left with the rest of his party if he had lived? Who knows? But like lifting any other president out of his historical context, the exercise serves more to show how politics in this country has changed than to tell us what an older JFK would have done. Personally, I don’t think he was much of a conservative or a liberal. He was, instead, a talented political opportunist of the first order who might have been great (like other presidents who grew in the office) if he had been given more opportunity and greater challenges.
The generation that remembers him clings to his memory because inflating an articulate, charming, wealthy, and morally dissolute young man into a legend allows them to relive their youth and to hold onto the dubious notion that the pre-Vietnam America was somehow more pure than the one that followed it. But once they are gone, there will be little reason to worry about JFK’s true political leanings or to try and inflate the Missiles of October into more than one of a few relatively minor Cold War skirmishes that might have gotten out of hand. Nor will there be much more reason for conspiracy nuts to twist the evidence into knots in order to put forward the absurd notion that the act of a Communist malcontent was really the work of right-wing bigots, big business, or the mafia.
So while Americans can indulge in one last binge of Kennedy mania this week, perhaps it’s not out of place to point out that, unlike the assassination of Lincoln, 50 or 100 years from now November 22, 1963 won’t be remembered any more than the day when James Garfield, another young, charismatic, and potentially fine president, was assassinated in 1881. The need to overdose on Camelot is after all, more about the people who loved him than the enduring legacy of the man himself.