Thanksgiving week is a milestone for Barack Obama, but not one that many are likely to commemorate. The president who seemed poised to inherit John F. Kennedy’s mantle—in the eyes of Kennedy’s last surviving child and brother as well as many optimistic onlookers (me included) in 2008—will now have served longer than his historical antecedent. Obama, surely, does not want to be judged against any JFK yardstick, longevity included. It’s his rotten luck that he incited such comparisons at the start by being a young and undistinguished legislator before seeking the presidency; by giving great speeches; by breaking a once-insurmountable barrier for African-Americans, as Kennedy did for Roman Catholics; and by arriving in the White House with his own glamorous wife and two adorable young children in tow. He has usually shrugged off these parallels gracefully. These days, with his honeymoon long over, it’s particularly in his interest to do so. But Obama can’t escape JFK’s long shadow, and neither can we. Another wave of Kennedyiana has arrived just in time for the holidays: three major new books, all three already best sellers. But in the second decade of the 21st century, what, exactly, are the customers buying?
Camelot would seem one of the last go-to articles of national faith for Americans at a time when three quarters of them believe the country is on the wrong track. The Kennedy enterprise still perennially engages the imaginations of high-end artists as various as Don DeLillo, James Ellroy and Stephen Sondheim—not to mention an irrepressible parade of television-mini-series hucksters who come up with such ideas as casting Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy. The assassination alone has generated more books than there were days in the Kennedy presidency. And the Kennedy cult, as Gore Vidal called it in 1967 when he waded through an early bumper crop of New Frontier memoirs, generally gets a waiver on reality checks.
But if the JFK story has resonance in our era, that is not because it triggers the vaguely noble sentiments of affection, loss, and nostalgia that keepers of the Kennedy flame would like to believe. Even the romantic Broadway musical that bequeathed Camelot its brand is not much revived anymore. What defines the Kennedy legacy today is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.
The prime movers of the traditional, more uplifting take on the Kennedy legacy are boomers who were young and present in real time for JFK’s brief shining moment. This fast-aging generation accounts for all three books this fall—Caroline Kennedy’s belated release of her mother’s taped 1964 reminiscences with an obsequious Arthur Schlesinger Jr., of course, but also Chris Matthews’s man-crush of a biography, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, and Stephen King’s Moby-Dick-size novel 11/22/63. Of the three, King’s is the most provocative, as its title indicates: The assassination, not the life, is the Kennedy historical marker that matters most in his fictional tale of a present-day Maine schoolteacher who, through time-travel magic, tries to stop Lee Harvey Oswald. America’s contemporaneous love of JFK is vivid in its pages, but no less so is the equally American storm of gathering political anger that prefigured his murder.
The substance of Kennedy’s actual White House tenure is, as Matthews says, elusive. Though the jury is no longer out, the verdict is decidedly mixed. Matthews’s hagiography tries mightily to dramatize JFK’s greatness in office but focuses more convincingly on the refreshing vigor the stylish young president brought to a culture emerging from the buttoned-down conformity of the fifties. Echoing Norman Mailer’s influential 1960 Esquire valentine to JFK, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Matthews sees his idol as a Technicolor movie star who supplanted the black-and-white politicians of the postwar Truman-Eisenhower era. “He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor” was the way Mailer put it a half-century ago, “and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards.” But as for what the star accomplished at center stage, Matthews mainly relies on one unassailable feat, Kennedy’s steely prevention of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “In the time of our greatest peril, at the moment of ultimate judgment,” Matthews concludes, JFK “kept the smile from being stricken from the planet.”
Another boomer, the historian Alan Brinkley, offers a less smiley-face portrait in John F. Kennedy, his contribution to the American Presidents Series, due next spring. Brinkley is sympathetic to his subject, but his appraisal is balanced and unsentimental, unlike that of the cultists. Like Matthews, he gives JFK high marks for his wit and charm (if not his reckless womanizing) and for his handling of the missile crisis (while noting that there might not have been a crisis without the prefatory fiasco at the Bay of Pigs). He commends Kennedy’s pursuit of a nuclear-test-ban treaty and his very powerful (if very tardy) speech endorsing Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission just two months before the March on Washington in 1963. Most of all, Brinkley admires that idealistic Kennedy spirit of public activism and volunteerism that inspired so many, especially the young, to heed his call to “get the country moving again.”
But Brinkley, like other historians, ranks the truncated administration’s actual record as middling—neither great nor a failure. Kennedy was more “comfortable giving speeches on behalf of civil rights,” he writes, than throwing himself into battle. He even avoided an Emancipation Proclamation centennial rather than risk offending white southern Democrats. He failed to pass most of his proposed legislation (including federal aid to education and health care for the aged), was “conservative in his embrace of Keynesianism” (he pushed business-friendly tax cuts rather than increased spending), and was “aloof and ineffective” dealing with his former colleagues in Congress. Many liberal Democrats, starting with Eleanor Roosevelt, did not trust a man who had missed the Senate vote to censure Joe McCarthy and as president kept J. Edgar Hoover on at the FBI. And then there’s the little matter of Vietnam. Given the administration’s modest list of tangible achievements, its slow but steady escalation of American troop levels, right up to Kennedy’s death, looms particularly large. Maybe he would have honored his professed intention of a reasonably fast exit. Nonetheless, it was the best-and-brightest hands he left behind, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, who enabled Lyndon Johnson to descend into the Southeast Asian quagmire once he ascended to the Oval Office.