22 November 2013
The nation is awash right now in tributes marking the 50th anniversary of the death of John Kennedy. Some are focused on the man himself, others on his presidency, and still others on his assassination. The half century mark marks a moment to dream of the man who would be king, to reassess his short time in the White House, and to revisit yet again the murder of our leader.
In my mind’s eye two things stand out. The first is his sense of style – John Kennedy’s style. He was that handsome, that charming, that rich, that witty, that clever, that famously framed by so fabulous a family.
The second is a sense of closure – John Kennedy’s ending forever an imagined ideal. The ideal of a great leader taking the United States of America to heights greater than those scaled by any other nation in the history of the world. Even Ronald Reagan, in these two ways Kennedy’s only conceivable successor, does not qualify. His presidency came too late. By then, by the 1980s, the American people already were jaded.
What’s astonishing is Kennedy’s hold even now. Even 50 years later we remain mesmerized by the man, so much so that the year 1963 is remembered for nothing so much as his death.
But if we step back, shed our fixation on this single individual, there is this: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Both came out in, yes, 1963. Two of the greatest American documents ever were born in the year that Kennedy died. King’s Letter is one of the seminal pieces of the leadership literature, and Friedan’s book is acknowledged the “bible” of the 20th century women’s movement.
So in commemorating 1963 we might commemorate not only the death of a president, but this in addition:
Martin Luther King, from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed….For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “’Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied…
“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban woman struggled with it alone. As she…lay besides her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’”
– Betty Friedan, from The Feminine Mystique
Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
This blog is also posted on Barbara Kellerman´s own site: www.barbarakellerman.com.
The Kennedy Brand
Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal
20 November, 2013
Thirteen years after, I was born, in 1976. The myth was then already debunked, and thus the Kennedy saga unfolded to me in a different order than to the generation of my parents: not the dream first and then the wake-up call, but vice versa. The Kennedy I got to know was a wandering opportunist who once, long ago, had enchanted America. It is likely that JFK would have been remembered as a disastrous president if those terrible events at Dealey Plaza had not happened.
I saw the first real outline of JFK, the person, the character, after readingThe Dark Side of Camelot, the controversial book by Seymour Hersh that was published in 1997. Hersh filled in the blanks in the already known dark side of Camelot: how father Kennedy bought election victory in 1960 for his son, how Kennedy himself prolonged the war in Vietnam out of pure political opportunism. Writing about a concealed marriage and a host of venereal diseases: Hersh burned the Kennedy court down to the fundamentals.
Seymour Hersh was – in a slightly different scale – a legend himself. I wanted to become such a good journalist as well, and I wanted to believe him. In my mind, JFK behaved almost the same as Nixon. JFK’s youngest brother Edward Kennedy criticized the book as malicious slander. Hersh had no evidence for all his claims indeed, but the core of the book was solid.
Ten years later I went to live in Washington. Obama was about to be elected. The Kennedy brand proved to be like Teflon: the Kennedy brand had survived all the scandals. During a joint election rally at the American University in Washington, Edward Kennedy passed the torch to Obama. The eloquence, the youth, ideals: Obama deserved an official stamp of approval from America’s only royal family. Also on stage was Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter. Recently she was named ambassador to Tokyo by Obama. She doesn’t have any special rhetorical gifts and this received frowned eyebrows here and there. But Caroline’s a Kennedy – the brand reaches deep into Asia.
Kennedy’s youngest brother died in the summer of 2009. My sister was visiting me at that time. Together we stopped at his office in the Russell Building, right behind the Capitol. A mini pilgrimage through the stately halls of Congress. We stopped at room SR -317: Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts. Inside we signed a condolence register. Weeks later there we received a beautiful envelope in the mail, including a full-color photograph of Edward Kennedy at his very best. “Thanks for your compassion – The Kennedy Family.”
That same summer I sailed on a boat along the coast of Rhode Island. ‘That’s where John and Jackie were married,’ said the skipper, pointing to a villa by the water, and we took pictures. Later that year I went to visit Dealey Plaza for the first time.
The images from Dallas still make a deep impression. Meanwhile – as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy – the man who took over the torch is losing prestige every day. Even though Obama is – again, like Kennedy – sometimes obsessively concerned with his appearance: his place in history must be secured. It’s, now in the fifth year of his presidency, a burden on his shoulders.
Kennedy’s death was terrible, but the brand was saved by it.
20 November 2013
I was born on the last summer day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, at least as Americans might count it. I was born on Labor Day Monday 1963, a holiday that marks the end of summer with family get-togethers. That’s how the other Kennedys – no relations of mine – spent their own Labor Day weekend, at their traditional home away in Hyannis Port. The photos taken of that weekend all add to the poignancy of the family tragedy; a scant twelve weeks later JFK would be shot and killed.
I obviously have no personal recollection of Kennedy myself. But I’ve often imagined myself having been born in another, better time than the one I actually came to experience. Those last summer days of 1963 were days before the Fall – in which a political assassination led to all kinds of ugliness: a brutal war in Vietnam, increased racial tensions across the United States and new levels of political recrimination and public cynicism. For Europeans just as for many Americans, a hope for a new and better era had been dashed suddenly at Dallas. His death brought, as it has been said countless times, a Loss of Innocence.
That vision of history has never lost its on grip on me, because it’s a powerful one: it fits the narratives of both romance and tragedy that we’d like to believe in. And for Americans, it’s tempting to think that a “what if JFK had lived” counterfactual history would have been a lot better than the 1960s which we actually got which, in comparison to situation here, was pretty painful. But I doubt very much that it would have been much different if JFK had been around to preside over it all. To be sure, JFK might have prevented a massive expansion of American intervention in Vietnam, but Kennedy’s record is ambiguous enough to suggest he may well have taken up a policy similar to Johnson. In any event, in a decade of rising expectations – expectations which Kennedy himself did much to elevate – disillusion and discontent was bound to hit the Kennedy administration at some point soon. Race riots and burnt black churches in Mississippi were less than a year away, not to mention signs of a culture war over prayer in public school and protected free speech. Kennedy could not have stopped the Fall from coming, and we should not continue to suppose that he could have stopped it.
A Legacy through Television
19 November 2013
The image of JFK’s shooting is like a hall of mirrors. You can’t trust anything you see through the layers of mythmaking about the man, his presidency, his assassination. True, much of his legacy has been revised by historians (on Cuba, Vietnam, civil rights), but one piece of it remains largely undisputed. From the election debates with Nixon to his violent death, moving images came to define what his legacy means.
I confess the more you read about him, the less you understand: the man is so mediated frame-by-frame-by-frame. We now know that Kennedy’s youthful charm and Jackie’s dazzling beauty as televised did not show us the constant pain he was in physically or the predatory behavior the president exercised on a string of young women (to satisfy his sexual appetite or numb the pain?). To grasp the zeitgeist – or JFK’s psychology for that matter – we might turn to other moving images. The character of Don Draper in the TV drama series Mad Men, for example, brilliantly feels the pulse of the era: the over-the-top sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism mixed in with the excessive drinking and smoking.
In an episode vacillating appropriately between history and fiction, I have had my own personal TV moment with JFK. Etched in my mind is one afternoon when in 1967 a man came to install the family’s first black-and-white TV in our Amsterdam apartment. We were latecomers to the world of consumption. When the man turned on the TV to align and fine-tune the antenna on top of the set with the aerial mast on the roof, the moving images that sprang to life – in black-and-white, flickering, and grainy – were the Abraham Zapruder shots of when Jackie pulled in special agent Clint Hill and the motorcade sped away. I know every detail of the half-lit bedroom I walked into that afternoon to see the new gadget: the light, the angle, the static noise. As an historian, I also know people create false memories about the past. Come to think of it: he was not even my president. Yet, that’s what I remember. And so it goes: my first TV moment belongs to the haze of mythmaking that is the JFK assassination.
Ruth Oldenziel is professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. She has been a research fellow at Hagley Museum and Library, DE; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the Lemelson Center in Washington, D.C. and Georgetown University. Since July 2012 she is also the chair of the board of the John Adams Institute.
18 November 2013
Each correspondent in WashingtonDC is surprised by the weird little space that passes for the Briefing Room, the press room at the White House. Here, the President or his spokesman is questioned about wars, revolutions, legislative issues or sexual escapes with trainees. Few people know that this claustrophobic space served an entirely different purpose forty years ago. White House correspondents fromABC, CBS, the Washington Post and the New York Times are now standing on what was once the pool of the White House. Here, according to his adviser and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., President Jack Kennedy swam many laps to take a break from his busy schedule.
But that image of Kennedy is not correct. According to investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, the pool at the White House was primarily used by Jack Kennedy for meetings with his mistresses. In his bookThe Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh describes the many sexual adventures Kennedy arranged in his pool. Source for all these stories are the personal experiences of four agents of the Secret Service who had to oversee the safety of Kennedy. They felt powerless when it came to the endless pursuit of women by the president. The women could not be screened, and so the president took the risk that he would be a victim of espionage, extortion or even a murder. ‘Reckless,’ the agents of the Secret Service called Kennedy’s behavior in his insatiable desire for sex. Curiously, all his escapades during his presidency were kept a secret. Kennedy had surrounded himself with extremely loyal friends and advisers. Even journalists such as Ben Bradlee, the later editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate affair, knew of these affairs but never published about it. Everyone was under the spell of this charming and charismatic man. They didn’t realize that Kennedy put himself, his presidency and his country in an extremely vulnerable position. At the height of the cold war, during the Cuban crisis, there is even talk of an affair with an East German spy, Ellen Rometsch. Never confirmed, but according to journalist Hersh this was a dangerous liaison that could have destroyed his presidency even before November 22, 1963.
Kennedy’s successor Johnson would still swim a few laps in the pool, but his successor Richard Nixon made an end to this. This place of Sodomand Gomorrahwas immediately given a new purpose and was now only suitable for that one profession that Nixon hated: the press.
During my first visit as a correspondent in the Briefing Room at the White House, I searched for traces. There’s nothing to see anymore, but a few inches below the floor there is still that legendary pool, Kennedy’s favorite hang out in the White House.
The Day the Sixties Started
17 November 2013
I used to think of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as a major turning point. The speech, this young man with no overcoat, his clear voice and his inspiring rhetoric, the glamor of Jackie: it had all the appearance of a new era. That is how it probably felt in 1961. I was too young to fully realize it, but where I grew up, in the Catholic south of the Netherlands, Kennedy made us proud. One of us, a Catholic, had become the most powerful man in the world. Paradise could no be far away.
Ever since things have not gone particularly well for Catholicism and neither did they for the historical memory of John F. Kennedy. And now, fifty years later, I know that the tipping point was the assassination, not the inauguration. Kennedy as a rich kid, the son of an ambitious and rather unscrupulous father: that is a story of the postwar period. Sure, Kennedy represented the ideal image of model of a young, dynamic America. He was the symbol of the American Century, tanned, intelligent and above all very young, but he also was very much “of that time”. I now see him as very fifties, as much if not more as his equally young, but much older looking opponent Richard Nixon.
What I know now is that the sixties took off that November 22, 1963. With those pieces of skull scattering in the shocking Zapruder film, the American myth exploded. In one blast America lost its innocence, or what was left of it, at least in the public mind. Of course, presidents had been assassinated before but they were never the most powerful men in the world. At best they were the most powerful Americans. The United States was not all that important back then. This time the assassination was an attack on the Western world, barely one year after the most frightening cold war crisis so far. That is how it felt for Vice President Lyndon Johnson as well, which explains his to some unseemly hurry to be sworn in as President.
That famous photograph of Johnson with a blood spattered Jackie next to him, in that claustrophobic airplane: it is a razor sharp image framing that particular moment. We now know that Jackie was wearing a light salmon-colored suit, but then and there we were still living in a black and white world. All pictures, all movies, all our opinions were still in black and white. So was my world as that Catholic nine year old. In many ways it was the picture of an ending, or, as I like to think now, of a beginning.
Because that day, around one o’clock, as the doctors in the Dallas hospital pronounced John F. Kennedy dead, the sixties started. The world turned upside down. Revolt, chaos, violence, Vietnam and more killings became the standard. And liberation became all the rage. We are still enjoying the gains and suffering the losses of that truncated decade. JFK did not belong to it.
That’s what I will be thinking of, on 22 November, the day blood was spilled and the the modern world was born.
Frans Verhagen ‘s publicist and editor of meiguo.nl. His most recent book was “Lincoln – A brilliant politician” (Historisch Nieuwsblad).
Is Obama the JFK of our time?
16 November 2013
I was born twenty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so I can’t really tell what impact the death of this iconic American President had on me personally. But an icon he was. Listening to Dutch people remembering JFK in Coen Verbraak’s documentary ‘De Dag dat Kennedy werd vermoord’ (The Day Kennedy was killed) I was reminded once again that also in the Netherlands people looked at this man as nothing less than a saint. ‘Savior of the world’, is how former TV host Koos Postema (81) recalls thinking of JFK. Even though he was living in a country at the other side of the Atlantic, as a young man he actually wished Kennedy could have been the president of the Netherlands. Former Dutch politicians across the spectrum from left wing to right wing all had very fond memories of this American president who became a historical figure and a symbol of the hopes they had in their own youth.
The closest I ever came to Kennedy, except for visiting his grave in Arlington, was his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston when I was there for a holiday this past September. There was a special exhibit titled ‘To the Brink’ telling the story of how the world was on the eve of destruction during the Cuban missile crisis. Centrepiece of the exhibit was a series of secret White House recordings of President Kennedy discussing the standoff with Khrushchev, talking to his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Against their advice, Kennedy refused to bomb Cuba. Also on display: the speech he would have given in case he would bomb Cuba. Impressive items, and I couldn’t help but think of Barack Obama who was contemplating military action in Syria and dominating the headlines when I was vacationing in Boston.
Different times, different men, but the comparison between JFK and Obama is easy to make. Both were once viewed as saviors. Young, charismatic men with lofty ideals that promised hope and change for America, and the rest of the world. Was JFK the Obama of the sixties, or Obama the JFK of our time now? Evaluations of both presidents now are no where near what they used to be. Of course we don’t believe in political saints, and they all have to fail at some point. But if there ever was a ‘savior of the world’ maybe John F. Kennedy could be called one, at least in those near fatal days in 1962.
Bertine Moenaff is a journalist for Radio 1, covered US politics for various media during the 2012 elections and was a Lantos/HIA Fellow in the US Congress in 2010.
15 November 2013
14 November 2013
It was in the days before the cellphone. Somehow the news percolated into our science class at high school. President Kennedy had been fatally shot. We were pretty well versed in the ballistics of William Tell’s experiment with the apple, but this morning doom descended – with no other than a vertical path.Foreign leaders don’t mean much to school kids, but on that morning I realized JFK was different. With Jackie, Caroline and John-John the American near-royal family was alive in my perception of the world. The JFK mystique, lovingly dubbed Camelot, was a source of inspiration I turned out to share with millions around the globe.Profiles in courage, the 1955 clarion call to Americans of all denominations and backgrounds, was one of the first non-fiction pocketbooks I possessed. The cover with that Mount Rushmore like portrait of the young Massachusetts senator appealed to my interest in noble leadership – often to be flattened by realities unforeseen.The comparison with Barack Obama is hard to resist. Kennedy did not live to truly disappoint his voters. Had he met the days of Fox and the Tea Party his dalliances with ladies of diverse reputation would have made JFK a permanent and lasting punching bag, relegating Bill Clinton to the junior league. Obama so far remains pretty rumor free in this field.On the war front the current president would certainly best John Kennedy, had he escaped his attacker(s) on November 22, 1963. The Vietnam quagmire is on a disaster par with the Iraq War initiated by George W. Bush. The Kennedy administration sucked the US into the Vietnam War, whereas Obama painfully disentangled his country from the unwise adventure his predecessor left.Yet, JFK died sufficiently early to be spared the massive disappointment Obama has to live through in his second term. Both initially offered hope and the notion of rational governance, with a tinge of national and bipartisan generosity. How unbearable we will never know whether Kennedy would have had a defter hand in navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Congressional politics. Maybe not, given Johnson’s contrasting knack at it.One of JFK’s most loyal servants definitely beats his mental successors. Robert McNamara, the steely intellectual and technocrat who led America into the Vietnam War died at 93 only four years ago, having comtemplated and admitted his mistakes in The Fog of War and other documentary evidence. If anything that was a profile in courage, a sign of analytical wisdom Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney still have to begin developing.McNamara did Camelot’s after sales service. A tribute to JFK’s possible greatness.
Marc Chavannes is journalist, columnist and former correspondent in Washington D.C. for NRC Handelsblad.