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What Killed JFK

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.