JFK – Time to lay a political myth to rest
Next Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas. No politician must have been talked about more in the intervening 50 years. A public life cut short in this way inevitably casts a longer shadow but there is something unique about the mythology which has developed around JFK. His image is still regularly seen, his speeches are regularly quoted and there is endless ongoing speculation about the circumstances of his death.
For 3 months in 1997 I lived a few blocks away from the street in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born and spent the first 8 years of his life. I had the chance to visit his birthplace, a relatively modest house given the wealth the Kennedy family was later to have access to. I learnt from that visit about the strong sense of family which pervaded Kennedy’s upbringing and the issues in his family, for instance the mental health issues experienced by his sister, which would inform later political actions. I also learnt about the fearsome sense of ambition held by JFK’s father Joe and his mother Rose for their children. Young Jack Kennedy and his elder brother would sit for dinner at a little table alongside their parents where they would be expected to behave as little adults.
Finally I learnt how central politics was to the family with both JFK’s Grandfathers John Fitzgerald and Patrick Kennedy already having made an impact as major local political figures. Joe Kennedy senior was determined that his children would go even further. Jack of course was the second son and for a while the focus of his father’s ambition was Joe his older brother. Joe however was killed in action during the Second World War and Jack, who himself served in the US Navy and had a very narrow escape from death, emerged after the War as the one to have the political career. He entered the House of Representatives in 1946, the Senate in 1952 and 1960 secured the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.
Kennedy, the first and only Catholic President of the USA, won the narrowest of victories over Richard Nixon. The first televised debates in US presidential elections, where Kennedy’s relaxed good looks scored well, were seen as crucial.
Kennedy has defined much of what across western democracies are still seen as the qualities looked for in a political leader. Young, good looking, intelligent, eloquent, confident and hopeful, Kennedy cut a strong contrast with the gerontocracy in power in many other countries at the end of the 1950s. With his beautiful wife and young family and his talented entourage the Kennedys emerged as the royalty which America was never supposed to have but actually quite likes. The story of Camelot was readily accepted.
The reality of Kennedy’s presidency was more mixed than the image. On foreign policy, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, Berlin a victory on points to Khruschev but Kennedy undoubtedly rose to the hour in his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On domestic policy his scope was limited by a hostile Congress but by the end he was making progress on civil rights and had he had a second term it is likely that he would have passed the legislation on this and issues such as Medicare which in the end were the achievements of the Johnson Administration. The Peace Corps, one of the most successful and lasting initiatives of his presidency epitomises the spirit of his famous Inauguration Address “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Finally it was his ambition which put a man on the moon.
Had Kennedy not be assassinated and won a second term he may have gone onto greater domestic triumphs but he would have also had to face up to the consequences of his fateful decision to become involved in Vietnam. Kennedy apologists highlight that at the time of his death he was beginning to have second thoughts about Vietnam but the record in history of leaders drawing back from conflicts of this kind is not an inspiring one – just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. He might have also had to face up like Bill Clinton to a growing awareness and criticism of failings in his private morals.
So 50 years on there are some positive things to celebrate about the memory of Jack Kennedy but may be this is the time for the mythology of Camelot to finish and for him to take a more measured place in the lexicon of US and world history.