November 22 is almost upon us, and with it will come the usual encomia to the lost glories of “Camelot,” the glitzy term that has come to symbolize the Kennedy years but that actually was an invention after the fact — never once used to describe the Kennedy administration while Kennedy was alive but applied posthumously shortly after JFK’s assassination by a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy and an all-too-sycophantic Theodore H. White in the pages of Life magazine
John F. Kennedy was a president of questionable character and relatively meager accomplishments, but his untimely and violent death, followed by decades of unceasing image control by the Kennedys and their media groupies, has helped sustain the popular standing of a president who almost certainly would have been impeached or forced to resign the presidency had even a fraction of what we now know been made public while he was still alive and in office.
The left-wing journalist Seymour Hersh, after spending years wading through the muck of pumped-up war stories, doctored medical records (contrary to the image of “vigor” he liked to project, Kennedy suffered from a variety of ailments and consumed a prodigious daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals), compulsive extramarital activity, Mafia ties and electoral shenanigans, was forced to reevaluate the man he once admired.
“Kennedy,” he said in an Atlantic Monthly web interview shortly after the publication of his 1997 expose The Dark Side of Camelot, “was much more corrupt than other postwar presidents, by a major factor. Much more manipulative, though Nixon was a close second. There’s nothing wonderful about Nixon — Watergate proved that — but I think that Nixon was an amateur compared to Kennedy….”
Particularly irksome to Hersh and others who see through the Camelot haze is the claim by JFK apologists that had Kennedy lived, he would have put an end to America’s involvement in Vietnam — this despite the fact that the U.S. commitment there expanded from a few hundred military advisers under Eisenhower to nearly 17,000 troops under Kennedy; that the men generally viewed as the architects of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, were holdovers from the Kennedy administration; that just two months before his death Kennedy told Walter Cronkite, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw” and insisted to Chet Huntley that “We are not there to see a war lost”; and that the speech Kennedy planned to give in Dallas the day he was killed warned that a diminished American commitment in Vietnam would “only encourage Communist penetration.”
Of course, Kennedy insiders have a history of revisionism that goes well beyond Vietnam. On the great moral domestic issue of his time, Kennedy, far from being the champion of civil rights portrayed by court historians, was at best (to borrow from the title of Nick Bryant’s recent book on the subject) a “bystander” and at worst a president whose regional judicial appointees, according to a February 1964 Time magazine report, “have turned out to be so devoted to segregation that they may be the greatest obstacle to equal rights in the South today.”
When the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system was revealed, Kennedy loyalists were among the loudest critics. But several years later it emerged that Nixon was, to again quote Seymour Hersh, “an amateur compared to Kennedy.” Not only had JFK installed a taping system in the White House, he apparently had an insatiable need to eavesdrop on conversations held well beyond the porticos of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The FBI and the CIA had installed dozens of wiretaps and listening devices on orders and requests from the attorney general [Robert Kennedy],” wrote Richard Reeves in his 1993 book President Kennedy: Profile of Power. “Transcripts of secret tapes of steel executives, congressmen, lobbyists, and reporters routinely ended up on the president’s desk. The targets ranged from writers who criticized the president … to members of Kennedy’s own staff.”
The crime writer James Ellroy may have put it best in his typically hardboiled novel American Tabloid: “Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He talked a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab. Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame . . . .”