What Killed JFK

Senator John F. Kennedy, 1953.Photo: Bachrach/Getty Images

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.

A flyer distributed in downtown Dallas in the days prior to the Kennedy assassination.Photo: Courtesy of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Judged against this clear-eyed report card, the post-honeymoon Obama who has disappointed so many liberals looks a bit more Kennedyesque after all. JFK’s reviews back in the day also have a familiar ring. At the two-year mark of February 1963, the Times Washington bureau chief James Reston lamented that the “exuberant optimism of the first few months of the Kennedy administration” had given way “to doubt and drift” in a Washington nearing “the point of paralysis.” The president, Reston wrote, was “a moderate confronted by radical facts,” among them “a whopping budget deficit and an alarming army of the unemployed.” Kennedy was in “trouble both with the conservatives who think he has gone too far and the liberals who think he has not gone far enough.”

Unlike Obama, JFK enjoyed consistently high poll numbers, still hovering near a 60 percent approval rating in November 1963. But that fall, both Newsweek and Look speculated he could lose his bid for reelection in 1964. The hatred he aroused, while from a minority of voters, was heated and ominous. On Sunday, November 24, 1963, the Times was packed with elegiac coverage of the leader who had been slain that Friday. But the No. 1 book on the nonfiction best-seller list, as it had been for weeks, was JFK: The Man & the Myth, by Victor Lasky, a newspaperman who would years later enjoy a second vogue on the right as a die-hard Nixon defender after Watergate. Lasky’s thick slash-and-burn Kennedy book, which even questioned his World War II heroism as the skipper of PT-109, was a precursor of the Swift Boat hatchet job on John Kerry. After the assassination, Lasky declared that “Kennedy is no longer subject to criticism on my part,” and his publisher stopped promoting the book (but quickly resumed shipping it). It started to descend on the Times list. But as the New Year arrived, and post-assassination America got moving again, JFK: The Man & the Myth was still the top seller in Dallas.

In the decades to come, America would be riveted by the Warren Commission report, whose finding that Oswald was the lone assassin has been challenged by all manner of conspiracy theorists, amateur historians, ideologues, nuts, novelists, and provocateurs. In 11/22/63, Stephen King writes that he consulted much of the assassination literature, “reading a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am” before putting the probability that Oswald acted alone “at ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine.” His fictional alter ego, the schoolteacher Jake Epping, is, mercifully, not on an Oliver Stone crusade to subvert that math.

But another controversy from the assassination—one that has never received remotely the attention generated by the endless “grassy knoll” and “second gunmen” debates—is forcefully revived by King: the role played in Oswald’s psyche by the torrid atmosphere of political rage in Dallas, where both Lady Bird Johnson and Adlai Stevenson had been spat upon by mobs of demonstrators in notorious incidents before Kennedy’s fateful 1963 trip. As the time-traveling Epping gets settled in that past, he describes an inferno of seething citizens, anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish storefronts, and angry billboards demanding the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and equating racial integration with communism. That last one, King’s protagonist observes, “had been paid for by something called The Tea Party Society.”

That “Tea Party Society” is the novelist’s own mischievous invention, but the rest of his description is accurate. King’s touchstone is The Death of a President, by William Manchester, a meticulous biographer and historian who was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy to write the authorized account of the assassination. Manchester received cooperation from almost every conceivable party, the Warren Commission included, but after the Kennedy camp read the manuscript and objected to the disparaging treatment of Lyndon Johnson, as well as some (G-rated) domestic details about the First Couple, Mrs. Kennedy filed a quixotic injunction to halt publication. Her brief, failed effort only enhanced the book’s blockbuster appeal; soon after its release in 1967, The Death of a President became arguably more prominent than the Bible in middle-class American households. In his afterword to 11/22/63, King says he was “deeply impressed—and moved, and shaken” when rereading it. It’s hard to disagree. But what also struck me in a rereading was Manchester’s stern rejection of one major Warren Commission finding. Though he was onboard for its conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin, he did not buy its verdict that there was “no evidence” of any connection between Oswald’s crime and Dallas’s “general atmosphere of hate.”

Manchester is uncharacteristically contentious about this point. He writes that “individual commissioners had strong reservations” about exonerating Dallas but decided to hedge rather than stir up any controversy that might detract from the report’s “widest possible acceptance.” While Manchester adds that “obviously, it is impossible to define the exact relationship between an individual and his environment,” he strongly rejected the universal description of Oswald as “a loner.” No man, he writes, is quarantined from his time and place. Dallas was toxic. The atmosphere was “something unrelated to conventional politics—a stridency, a disease of the spirit, a shrill, hysterical note suggestive of a deeply troubled society.” Duly observing that even the greatest presidents have been vilified in their time—Lincoln as a baboon and Jefferson as “Mad Tom”—Manchester saw something “more than partisan zeal” at work in this case. He detected “a chiaroscuro that existed outside the two parties, a virulence which had infected members of both.” Dallas had become the gaudy big top for a growing national movement—“the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies.”

Immediately after the assassination and ever since, the right has tried to deflect any connection between its fevered Kennedy hatred and Oswald’s addled psyche with the fact that the assassin had briefly defected to the Soviet Union. But at the time even some Texans weren’t buying that defense. An editorial in the Dallas Times Herald chastised its own city for supplying “the seeds of hate” and “the atmosphere for tragedy.” The editor of the Austin American wrote that “hatred and fanaticism, the flabby spirit of complacency that has permitted the preachers of fanatical hatred to appear respectable, and the self-righteousness that labels all who disagree with us as traitors or dolts, provided the way for the vile deed that snuffed out John Kennedy’s life.”

That atmosphere doesn’t surface arbitrarily in 11/22/63. Though King had first considered writing the book in 1971, what inspired him to finally do so was the spectacle of that Republican backbencher shouting out “You lie!” when Obama addressed Congress in the fall of 2009. “One of the reasons to write the book was because there’s so much hate in the air now,” he told the filmmaker Errol Morris (also at work on a Kennedy-assassination project) in a recent interview for the Times website, and “a lot of it’s directed at Obama.”

Unlike Obama, JFK enjoyed consistently high poll numbers. But in the fall of 1963, both Newsweek and Look speculated that he could lose his bid for reelection.

Whatever the similarities between Obama and JFK, the differences are substantial. Kennedy devoted little attention to domestic affairs, and Obama has no interest in replicating JFK’s entertaining give-and-takes with the press. Obama has yet to show bravery to match JFK’s standoff with Khrushchev, but he can boast the legislative achievements that eluded Kennedy. But this much is certain: Both presidents were centrists in the Democratic parties of their respective eras. Neither could be remotely described as radical, let alone “socialist,” as critics of both have contended. Both are ardent capitalists largely content to leave corporate America to its own devices. Both are wary of the institutional left. Both are hawkish by their party’s standards. But for all this moderation, they, like the similarly centrist Bill Clinton, who was accused of enabling drug running and murder on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, have inspired a hatred so nightmarishly disproportionate to their actual beliefs, actions, and policies that it’s worthy of Stephen King’s fiction.

The culture wars that Americans have been fighting since the sixties are generally thought to have begun in the late sixties—in the paroxysms of student revolt and urban riots sparked by the spiraling of Vietnam and the twin murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. At the start of 11/22/63, King’s schoolteacher hero is implored by his old buddy Al, a dying Maine diner proprietor, to go back in time to bend the arc of history away from the catastrophic fallout that Oswald’s crime would unleash. “If you ever wanted to change the world,” Al says, “this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race ­riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe … Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”

Or not. In truth, it was already too late. America’s violent culture wars had started before JFK was shot. They were all on display in Oswald’s Dallas. At least in 1963, polling showed that only 5 percent of the country—a fringe—subscribed to the radical anti-government views championed by the John Birch Society and other militants of the right. These days, that fringe, whether in the form of birthers or the tea party or the hosts of Fox & Friends, gives marching orders to a major political party.

As a boomer who grew up in Washington, D.C., I was an eyewitness to the JFK inaugural on that bone-chilling January morning. My adolescence ended with the unfathomable news of that Friday afternoon of 11/22/63. My family was not in politics or journalism, but I had seen the young president with his wife at the theater one night, dazzling a startled audience with that ski instructor’s tan and those amazingly white teeth. Like almost every other American, I spent four straight days after the assassination watching television, and getting up to speed on the noirish Dallas atmosphere that would soon be compounded by Jack Ruby’s assassination of the assassin, the only murder I have seen broadcast live on television.

I never stopped admiring JFK, and, like Stephen King and so many others, I often wondered if all the calamities of the late sixties might have somehow been avoided had he lived. But that was another century, and, like many of those of my generation and older who carried the Kennedy flame, I find Kennedy’s presidency a half-remembered dream now, beautiful, even erotic, but somewhat weightless in content. Even the core JFK message—ask what you can do for your country—seems in remission at a time when so much of the country, regardless of party, holds Washington and most everything it does in contempt.

What’s also clear is that, despite the ardent attempts of the Kennedy cult to keep his romantic image alive, it is fading among those Americans who are too young to have witnessed it firsthand, in Technicolor. They tend to see JFK now as the property of their parents and grandparents—a short, transitional chapter in the American story, gradually reverting to black-and-white. Listen to Jackie Kennedy in her conversations with Schlesinger—with her feathery voice and piquant observations bespeaking a vanished time and class—and it’s hard to imagine what any 21st-century American under 40 could possibly make of her patrician eccentricities. In retrospect, that exhilarating rally at American University in Washington, D.C., in January 2008—where Caroline Kennedy, her uncle Teddy, and her cousin Patrick, soon to end the family’s 64-year run in national office, passed the torch to Obama—was the dynasty’s last hurrah.

On the other hand, read Manchester or 11/22/63 or any other account of that time, and the vitriol that was aimed at Kennedy in life seems as immediate as today. It’s as startling as that “You lie!” piercing the solemnity of a presidential address like a gunshot—or the actual gunshots fired at the White House last week by another wretched waif. In the end, that political backdrop is what our 44th and 35th presidents may have most in common. The tragedy of the Kennedy cult is that even as it fades, the hothouse brand of American malice that stalked its hero stalks our country still.

See Also
Was Everyone Quite So Nuts? Frank Rich and Adam Moss on 1963 vs. 2011

What Killed JFK