I 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.