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Can We Stop the JFK Worship?

I’ve said for years that Democrats — and even some Republicans — treat John F. Kennedy the same way most Republicans treat Ronald Reagan. They’ve turned him into a mythical figure that bears little resemblance to the real thing. Here’s a perfect example from a former Democratic legislator:

If you are an American over sixty, you remember when you learned that John Kennedy had died. If you are one of my contemporaries, you might remember almost as vividly the moment you thought Jack Kennedy had been reborn, in the form of some youthful contender who could turn an inspirational phrase and stab a finger in the air.

Your moment might seem absurd now – Gary Hart in the glow of winning New Hampshire in 1984. Or bittersweet – the November night in 1992 when Bill Clinton retired the WWII generation. Yours might be agonizingly recent – Barack Obama on a dream-lit stage in Grant Park. It’s been the longest quest in modern politics, the effort to recreate an ideal of power that was extinguished almost exactly 48 years ago, and it has never ended well.

Pretenders like Hart imitated the style without Kennedy’s strength of purpose. Clinton, Kennedy’s equal as a tactician, never matched his capacity to lift the country’s moral tone. As for Obama, he has gone backward in terms of his hold on the public’s imagination. Kennedy did the opposite, expanding a one vote per precinct squeaker into the last presidency that never dropped below fifty percent approval.

JFK? Lifting the nation’s moral tone? Is he serious? He didn’t drop below 50 percent because he wasn’t in office long enough. He was a mediocre president for the time he was in office, no better than that. But because he died young, he’s been turned into Ghandi and Jesus rolled into one.

Comments

  1. says

    I wasn’t around for Kennedy’s administration, so those uncommon times I hear the hoopla about him, I don’t get it. He seemed like a nice guy, and I’ve heard a couple speeches of his that make me feel warm and fuzzy. The problem is I really don’t hear much about what he actually got done before getting assassinated by the CIA, FBI, KGB, Freemasons, Bilderberg Group, Bigfoot, and his alternate future self.

  2. Budbear says

    I was around during the Kennedy administration and, as I remember, JFK was a brilliant orator. His persona was charming, witty and optimistic. His youthful exuberance and young family was in stark contrast to the grandfatherly and staid Eisenhower, whom he succeeded, and the darkly grim and Iago-like NIxon, whom he defeated in the election of 1960. America was ready for a sea change and they saw it in him. The reality, of course, is somewhat less soaring. His now well-known peccadillos were a well kept secret at the time and he was terribly inexperienced in the art of governance, being too easily led by the well-entrenched cold warriors of the intelligence services at the time, which led to the fiascos of the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, among others lesser known. He did however shine and begin to show competence during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was a close run thing and, as a teenager, I remember getting ready to kiss my ass goodbye in the coming nuclear holocaust. But, as we all know now, he stared down the Soviets and took what may be the biggest poker hand in our history.
    All that said, his administration was politically average at best up to the time of his assassination. That is where his sanctification began, as it often is with those who die dramatically, and the revisionist JFK was created. Part of that, I believe, is the moot point of what he would have accomplished had he not been killed, his legend being perpetuated by those entranced by the public persona and the one shining moment he had. There are some to whom he is a cult figure, but I really don’t think it can be compared to the organized, orchestrated and well financed revisionism of the Reagan myth, Reagan having had his full 8 years to show his meager capabilities and leaving this life as a sad and pathetic victim of mental deterioration.

  3. says

    Interesting. Davis was born 4 years after Kennedy was assassinated and he’s telling Americans over 60 what they would no doubt remember.

    I’m not sixty; I was 4 when Kennedy ran for president. I remember election night because it was a big deal in my family. My father and grandfather were very active in New York Republican politics and both held party positions in my early childhood. Politicians, canvassing, phone banks and the like were a regular part of our lives around election time. I stamped a lot of envelopes as soon as I was old enough to do it without making a mess.

    On the night of the Nixon-Kennedy election, we had phones set up in our house and people going through phone books (probably reverse directories, calling households presumably in heavily Republican districts saying Republican Party calling, polls close at 9 o’clock.).

    So I wasn’t surrounded by people enamored with Kennedy. I also clearly remember the Kennedy assassination and how I was actually surprised that my family was sympathetic, though not gushy. I didn’t really understand the idea that there were matters that should transcend politics; I was just like a 2011 Republican, but my excuse was that I was only 7.

    In stories about the assassination, I hear about all the school kids who were crying, but I didn’t see any kids crying that day. When they showed people crying on television, including a child here and there, I remember thinking the 7 year old Catholic school boy equivalent of WTF? When we returned to school after the funeral, I don’t remember solemnity. Everyone was excited, talking about what had happened the past few days, especially the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. Kids were absolutely manic in the aftermath. It may sound awful, but it seemed at the time that people were reacting with something that was closer to the excitement of a great plot twist in a TV show. That’s how it looked to my youthful eyes in my memories of the events. In thinking about it now, it may have been that the Kennedy assassination was America’s first reality TV show.

    It seems to me that while JFK’s media machine pushed the romantic version of the Kennedys in the early days; the myth didn’t fully take hold until it was contextualized by the later murders of King and Bobby Kennedy gave JFK’s death a romanticized martyrdom context–Abraham, Martin and John and all that. That’s when I think the JFK myth really took hold in the blue states, right around the time Artur Davis was born in Alabama. Some bought into it before, but they were like Obama’s true believers. In a black Southern family of that time; with the context of civil rights King and Bobby Kennedy, I imagine Davis grew up drenched in the romantic JFK myth. I don’t think Southern whites had gotten on board with it until much later when Southern white realized that they had been fans of King all along. They actually spearheaded the civil rights over the objections of northern elitists and liberals. Anyway.

    From a historical perspective, these myths bear little relationship to reality, but they’re so durable, they’re must be at least some psychological upside–maybe if only to tell people that there is goodness in the world, even if it’s condensed in fiction. They also encapsulate the sense of tragic futility that I think nags at all psyches, at least unconsciously. In one way or another we all feel some need to find a purpose that transcends the tragedy of our mortality.

  4. says

    @ Dr. X

    I wasn’t born at the time of the assassination. But I’ve talked with two guys in the South who were. Both said that when the announcement of the death was announced most of their classmates cheered.
    Hell, if Dubya had been killed, I wouldn’t have been giddy — even if his vice president hadn’t happened to have been Satan. Now if Cheney had killed the president in a “hunting accident?” That would have been classic!

  5. Aquaria says

    JFK? Lifting the nation’s moral tone? Is he serious?

    I think you’re confusing what we know about JFK now with what was known about him then. In 1963, Americans didn’t know about the skirt-chasing, so things like “Ask not what your country can do for you” did inspire an entire generation to do something for their country–it launched tens of thousands of Peace Corps volunteers to help the poor and needy and vulnerable, and that is a good thing. His support of civil rights inspired thousands of young people to challenge the status quo and bring justice and equality to all Americans, however little he actually did for those causes. It was still a good thing to speak out against prejudice and against Jim Crow.

    That is raising the moral tone, like it or not. We haven’t had a President since who inspired so much good in so many Americans. It sucks that he wasn’t a terribly good President (although not a complete failure). It sucks that he was such a complete shit in his private life. But it’s not true that he did nothing for the moral tone in the early 60s.

    Because he did.

  6. says

    Kennedy was much better than the average president, though in recent decades that may not be saying much.

    It may be true that his role as an icon has exceeded his accomplishments while in the Oval Office, but so what? It’s all pretty symbolic anyway.

    Oh, by the way, Jesus was slain at a young age as well. To the extent that he existed or that anything said about him is even remotely accurate.

    In any event, as an old-time Northeastern Democrat who was represented by Bobby at the time he was slain and worked for Teddy, I must ask you to UNHAND MY IDOL, DAMMIT!!!

  7. LightningRose says

    Let it never be forgot,
    that once there was a spot,
    for one brief shining moment known as Camelot.

    Yes, I’m old enough to remember the hope and change that was the Kennedy administration. No, we can’t stop remembering, and for me, at least, the tarnish will never wear off.

  8. Crudely Wrott says

    >What Aquaria said.

    I was ten years old when JFK was elected and I clearly remember his “ask not” speech. Since I had been watching evening news for a year or so and since I lived within spittin’ distance of a SAC bomber base (listening to B-47s scrambling overhead in the wee hours) I had a nascent idea of the political atmosphere of the times.

    His words gave me an honest, if naive, sense of purpose that has not yet left me though it has been eroded into new forms. I always enjoy meeting others of my age who, like my younger self, first realized that the driving force behind politics is really vested in the awareness and purpose of the individual citizen.

    And you can pry that conviction out of my cold, dead hands.

    I might have come close to putting Kennedy on a pillar back then in the 60s. Subsequent history and increasing (woe’s me) maturity have changed my notions but the basic message to “act as an individual in order to make a difference on a broader stage” is something that I still trust and try to emulate. It was JFK that first gave that to me and I shall always honor that.

    E Pluribus Unum.

  9. Dennis N says

    I’ve said for years that Democrats — and even some Republicans — treat John F. Kennedy the same way most Republicans treat Ronald Reagan. They’ve turned him into a mythical figure that bears little resemblance to the real thing.

    I would say JFK has been mythicized yes, but not comparable to Reagan. How many times is JFK brought up at Democratic debates? In television interviews? Republican politicians fall all over themselves to get in line with what they imagine Reagan’s views to be, and Democrats don’t do the same with JFK.

  10. d cwilson says

    As a member of the post-Kennedy generation (born 1969), I’ve never understood the mythologizing of his legacy. The only reason his memory is so larger than life is because he was murdered. Had he lived to serve a full term or two, he’d probably be remembered as a mediocre president.

    @Dennis N:

    I’ll agree with you. As annoying as I find the Kennedy worship among democrats, it’s not half as a bad as the Reagan worship on the other side. Of course, the myths that the right has made up about Saint Ron are even more out of sync with reality than those the left has about JFK.

  11. dingojack says

    “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
    John F Kennedy

  12. KG says

    budbear,

    He did however shine and begin to show competence during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was a close run thing and, as a teenager, I remember getting ready to kiss my ass goodbye in the coming nuclear holocaust. But, as we all know now, he stared down the Soviets nearly got us all killed with his insane brinkmanship and took what may be the biggest poker hand in our history.

    FIFY

  13. Who Knows? says

    Seems to me the job of president is very tough and rising to mediocre is pretty damn good.

    IMO, Kennedy is reverved for what he represented, just as most great presidents.

  14. pacal says

    JFK? Lifting the nation’s moral tone? Is he serious? He didn’t drop below 50 percent because he wasn’t in office long enough. He was a mediocre president for the time he was in office, no better than that. But because he died young, he’s been turned into Ghandi and Jesus rolled into one.

    Absolutely correct. St. John of Kennedy was in reality a pretty mediocre President, whose death transmuted him into the Second Coming, certainly not anything he had actually done.

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