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john f kennedyI watched the entire series, “The Kennedys”. As someone who has a sound understanding of human nature (that is to say, a Christian understanding) I was never particularly attracted to what historian Thomas Reeves calls “The Camelot School” of Kennedy historiography, nor particularly repelled by it.  Anybody who is surprised by occasional flashes of virtue in our leaders, or is outraged by their sins, just hasn’t read enough history.  As many people have said, the doctrine of Original Sin is the one religious dogma most susceptible to empirical verification.

That said, the Kennedys got a pass again.  The series might be called, “Camelot: A Slight Revision.”  The five major characters, ably played by Greg Kinnear (JFK), Katie Holmes (Jackie), Barry Pepper (Bobby), Tom Wilkinson (Joe Sr.), and Diana Hardcastle (Rose), are all in the end sympathetic, and, with the exception of Pepper, much better looking than their real life counterparts.  Wilkinson is especially good, and actually makes us almost like one of the true moral monsters of American public life.  Most of the really reprehensible things all of them did are only hinted at, or seen around the edges, or ignored altogether.  In fact, all eight episodes might be summed up in Jackie’s answer to little Caroline’s question about the Cuban Missile Crisis–”Your Daddy just saved the world.” Well, he didn’t. He almost got it blown to smithereens with his reckless behavior, and he presided over the largest single transfer of the global balance of power in the entire forty-odd year history of the Cold War–that is, of course, until 1989. The title of Nigel Hamilton’s very good book, JFK: Reckless Youth, could also aptly be given to his Presidency.  But the Kennedys have an unusual capability of shutting down the opposition, or at least pulling off big time damage-control.  Somebody should do an unshakable book on how Jackie managed both to create and perpetuate the Camelot myth.

Thomas G. Reeves’s A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991) is still, I believe, the best single book about the 35th President.  It is a wise book, which tries to probe not only the Kennedy policies, but the Kennedy character.  In itself the question of character is the same question we should ask of our teachers, priests and friends as well as our leaders.  Reeves asks the follow-up: What is the relation between character and political leadership?  Or to put it another way, is there a direct connection between personal morality and political leadership?  The answer, of course, is yes and no.  None of us can see fully into the hearts of others, and there is much that we can never know about the private behavior of most of the  world’s leaders in all of history.  Kennedy’s rival Richard Nixon, widely assumed in the academic world to be a great villain, was as a family man, husband and father, far superior to most of the Kennedys (especially Joe Sr. and John), whose sexual behavior was about on the level of your average alleycat.  Nixon, as far as we know, did not try to murder the heads of state of enemies and allies alike.  Yet, by other standards, Nixon comes off as Kennedy’s evil twin.  It is interesting that they rather admired each other when they were both junior Congressmen after World War II.

I bring up the case of Richard Nixon here because I believe that if one examines the record closely, the private and the public life, he comes off much better than John Kennedy.  Take just one example.  Nixon did not write everything to which his name is attached, and he admitted as much when pressed.  Kennedy did not write anything to which his name was attached–not the book form of his senior thesis at Harvard, and not Profiles in Courage, for which he accepted a Pulitzer Prize.  In my profession, that alone would guarantee a name and a career which would live in infamy.  That he lied about what he didn’t write, that he helped to engineer a massive coverup of health problems that by definition made him unfit for the Presidency, that he was directly complicit in multiple attempts, successful and unsuccessful, on the lives of foreign leaders, makes Nixon’s prevarications on Watergate look pretty puny by comparison.

Thomas Reeves’s book is not as negative as I here sound.  In fact, Reeves admits that he cared deeply for JFK, and very reluctantly came to understand his deep flaws.  He finally understood that, “The real Kennedy–as opposed to the celebrated hero espoused by the Kennedy family, the media, and the Camelot School–lacked greatness in large part because he lacked the qualities inherent in good character.”  Still, he accepts most of the myth of Kennedy “victory” in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he thinks, as all the Camelot School insists, that JFK was “growing,” and would perhaps have turned himself and the country around.  I have never known one single person to change significantly after reaching adulthood, save for a profound religious conversion.  While that may have been possible in JFK’s case, there was certainly nothing in his life up to the assassination that would suggest it.

In other words, whether one looks at the most recent version of the Kennedy story from the perspective of historical comparisons or a good book, the family got a full pass again.  One has to wonder what moves them to use their considerable money and power to get even this mildly realistic series nearly pushed under the rug.  They let only court historians into the family papers–and then banish those like Nigel Hamilton who stray off the reservation–but that is their right, they own the papers.  Why would they waste the time to try to crush an almond with a sledgehammer when that almond was, all in all, pretty good tasting?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Selected scenes cut from ‘The Kennedys’
    Joe (in family library): Jack! Jack, my lad! Join me (hic). My friend Adolf in (burp) Berlin sent me another crate of bootleg whisky!
    JFK: Sorry, pop! The French maid asked me to help improve her embouchure.
    (cut to)
    Doctor: Sorry, Senator, but there’s no way you could ever serve as president. The tests are positive for hyperthyroidism, hypergonadism, pernicious anaemia, Addison’s Disease, auto-immune diasthesis, colitis, celiac disease, Cushingism and osteoporosis.
    JFK: X@!!%)!X%/!!
    Doctor: …and apparently Asperger’s Syndrome.
    (cut to)
    Lyndon Johnson: Mister President-elect, the country is outraged that you’re appointing your brother Attorney General.
    JFK: Hmmm. Then think there might be a problem appointing Rose, Teddy, Jean, Patricia, Eunice, John-John and Caroline to the Supreme Court?
    (cut to)
    JFK: How does this sound? ‘Ask not what your country’s gonna do to you, ask what the Hell you can do while your country’s doing it to you.’
    Ted Sorenson: Maybe we can work on that some more.
    (cut to)
    Jackie: Under our bed! Right here in the White House! A pair of women’s panties and they aren’t mine!
    JFK: Just put ‘em in the steamer-trunk with all the others.
    (cut to)
    Juan Valdez: Map? We no need a map, Senor Presidente! We justa land los guerrillos in-a Cuba ana ask directions!
    (cut to)
    Dean Rusk: Mister President, all these secret assassinations may be getting out of hand.
    JFK: Come on, Dean! You think anybody’s gonna miss the Prime Minister of Canada?
    (cut to)
    Marilyn Monroe: Happy birthday to you!
    Frank Sinatra: Happy birthday to youse!
    Dean Martin: Happy birthday, Mister President!
    Guido ‘The Fish’ Bennedetti: Happy Birthday to youse!
    JFK: Thank you, my friends! What a surprise! This is wonderful!
    Frank Sinatra: Here’s a great guy youse gotta meet! Lee! Come here a minute! Lee Oswald!

  2. If Steve's outtakes were in it, I would say, WATCH IT! But, probably not. By the time you spend ten or twelve hours of your life watching this, you could have read Tom Reeves's book.

    Ever since the day in November 1963 that I heard the news of the assassination in a coffee shop in Laramie, Wyoming (and then spent the better part of the next three days glued to the TV) I have for some reason considered it my duty to "keep up" on the Kennedy saga. Did you know that C.S. Lewis died the same day? And my grandfather, James Fuller? Two great men died that day!

    And the longer I stay at this duty (obsession?) the more convinced I am that the Kennedys were not particularly interesting. Old Joe was a fierce Celtic warrior, but without his money the rest of them were pretty small potatoes.

  3. Steve, brilliant.

    John, thank you. And, not just Lewis and Fuller. Aldous Huxley at the same moment. It's also the Feast of St. Cecilia.

    As to Lewis and Kennedy dying on the same day–similar to what happened with Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. In each case, the news of the death of the scoundrel trumped the news of the arrival of the saint in heaven.

    Happy Fort Sumter Day, all! Yours, Brad

  4. Mr. Huntoon, sorry to see you go. I often disagree with you but I have found your comments provocative. Of course readers will find views they don't agree with on TIC. A good discussion is always welcome.

    Mr. Willson, loved the essay. I share your Christian understanding of the human condition and your view of the Kennedys. Nicely done.

  5. Exactly upside-down, if Sheldon Stern has something to contribute. In transcripts from original secret tapes, “Saint Bobby” (who, for instance, opposed an American naval blockade in favor of air strikes) emerges as the nuke-mad hawk backed by the Joint Chiefs, and JFK as the man trying to let reason conquer military might or grand gestures. After the fact, Bobby rewrote his words & deeds; other famous observers likewise ‘conveniently forgot’ what happened as the rewrote history long after the facts. Old Joe? Nazi sympathizer and defeatist.

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