A nation that considers John F. Kennedy one of its greatest presidents is not a serious nation.
Clearly, Americas have been intoxicated by the Kennedy mix of celebrity and martyrdom. They have been fed Kennedy misinformation for decades. As a result, the Kennedy myth has worked as a cultural toxin.
For my part I have suggested that JFK is the presiding genie behind the Vietnam Era counterculture. He also influenced the growth of an American celebrity culture and of an ethic that values aristocratic decadence. No other president so clearly embodied a culture of permanent entitlement.
Yesterday Ross Douthut offered his own analysis of the Kennedy myth. Since his views correspond closely with mind, I find them estimable and quotable.
In his words: “In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as ‘incomplete.’ The harsher view would deem him a near disaster — ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward. (And the latter judgment doesn’t even take account of the medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency, or the adulteries that eclipsed Bill Clinton’s for sheer recklessness.)”
I and many others have tried to make clear that Kennedy’s legacy must include the Vietnam War.
Seeing the problem, the Kennedy propaganda machine has done everything in its power to absolve JFK of responsibility for the debacle. It has relied largely on a counterfactual: if JFK had not been killed, he would have withdrawn from Vietnam before it became a disaster.
It is usually not a very good sign when you have to defend your position with a fiction.
Douthut counters: “Actually, it would be more accurate to describe the Vietnam War as Kennedy’s darkest legacy. His Churchillian rhetoric (‘pay any price, bear any burden ...’) provided the war’s rhetorical frame as surely as George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches did for our intervention in Iraq. His slow-motion military escalation established the strategic template that Lyndon Johnson followed so disastrously. And the war’s architects were all Kennedy people: It was the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence, not Oswald’s fatal bullet, that sent so many Americans to die in Indochina.”
And then there’s the idea, recently dusted off by Frank Rich, that Kennedy was killed by a toxic atmosphere of right-wing hatred. When Rich offered this opinion last week in New York Magazine I thought it was too ridiculous to critique. Atmospheres do not kill people.People kill people.
When I read Rich’s article, I felt that he was embarrassing himself. Sometimes he is so good at it that he does not really need too much help from me.
Douthut refutes Rich by pointing out that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-wing fanatic. He was a left-wing fanatic.
In his words: “The idea that an atmosphere of right-wing hate somehow inspired a Marxist radical to murder a famously hawkish cold war president is even more implausible than the widespread suggestion that the schizophrenic Jared Lee Loughner shot his congresswoman because Sarah Palin put some targets on an online political map.”
Clearly, Douthut is correct.
It is nonetheless fair to say that the mystery surrounding the circumstances of Kennedy’s assassination has contributed to the cultish aura that grew up around him.
Even people who agree that Oswald alone fired the bullet that killed John Kennedy still have doubts about whether or not he had planned, organized, and implemented the assassination all by himself. Even if Oswald fired the fatal shots, we do not know whether he had been recruited by some outside group.
It may be true that Jack Ruby was so overwhelmed with grief about the assassination of JFK that he decided that he had execute Oswald himself, but still, Ruby was more closely attached to organized crime than to political zealots.
Whatever Ruby’s intention, his action succeeded in silencing Lee Harvey Oswald. Whether or not this served the interests of a third party, we will likely never know.
Would a more plausible explanation make JFK less of a cult figure? Would he be less of a cult figure if Lee Harvey Oswald had gone on trial and explained what he meant when he said that he was a "patsy?" Would JFK have been less of a cult figure if he had died of heart disease? It is all worth pondering.
If some dark and evil mysterious force recruited Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK, and if that force is so powerful that it has never been brought to justice, doesn’t that suggest that JFK was an ultimate force for good?
To some people, that is certainly the way it looks.
The truth lies elsewhere. Thanks to Kennedy, Douthut explains: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.”