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John Kennedy: Myth and Man
by George Shadroui
19 November 2003JFK

The 40th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination promised to bring us plenty of nostalgia, retrospection and mourning, and we have not been disappointed.

The 40th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination promised to bring us plenty of nostalgia, retrospection and mourning and we have not been disappointed.

The History Channel has already brought us several specials and more are to come. Chris Matthews devoted an hour to reviewing the Kennedy legacy and the impact of his assassination on the nation. I suspect a few more specials or replays of such will find their way to the viewing public.

Having lived in Dallas at the time of Kennedy’s assassination (I was all of six), my own emotions regarding that day are not inconsequential. My mother worked for Abraham Zapruder, the man who took the famous footage of the assassination. She caught a glimpse of Kennedy just a few minutes before he was shot, one of the throng there on the Dallas streets, and she was immortalized, in our eyes at least, when her photo wound up in newspapers across the nation, part of the backdrop to the young presidential couple basking in Texas sunshine, waving to the masses moments before night descended on the country. To this day, I occasionally pull out the preserved newspapers from Dallas that document the events of that awful day. I was a witness – like millions of others – to the horror and sadness that unfolded that November.

Like George Orwell, who is claimed by all political sides, Kennedy is an elusive man who defies easy definition. He is a liberal icon who had conservative tendencies. He was a bright man, but his alleged intellect has been exaggerated by an army of troubadours who have sought to immortalize him. He had great gifts, but also seismic flaws. He wore the cloak of idealism for public consumption, but ultimately was a political pragmatist who reacted to events more than he shaped them. So let us consider the man in the context of yesterday and today.

JFK: Neoconservative?

Kennedy, unlike many Democrats today, grasped the importance of the struggle between freedom and oppression. He initiated the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history and articulated with clarity and courage the role the United States must play as the defender of liberty. He was stridently anti-communist and his administration served during a dangerous time, when Soviet aggression could not be deterred. Or so it seemed. It is clear that Kennedy’s performance during his first summit with Khruschev was not his best moment, as he himself admitted. The weakness he apparently displayed may well have tempted the Soviet leader to test the young president, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war over Berlin and Cuba.

Kennedy did not possess the strategic vision or confidence of a Ronald Reagan, for example, whose tough, calculated stance toward the Soviet Union resulted in the liberation of much of the communist world. But Kennedy was a cool crisis manager, by most accounts, a man who listened and carefully evaluated his options. He did not overreact to the pressures of his time, which were immense.

At home, he was tax cutter and pro-business. Conservatives love to point this out because it is tough to find a tax cutter among our current crop of Democrats. Kennedy also was a latecomer to the civil rights struggle, liberal wishes notwithstanding, and even then he urged protesters to respect the rule of law. Given the importance of the south to his own political future (remember he had barely won office in 1960), one can appreciate – to a degree – his reluctance to embrace what was, in early 1960s, a difficult and emotional issue. Though he questioned the tactics of the civil rights protesters, he did eventually endorse the need for America to turn the page on the issue of civil rights and race relations.

The space program was a noble initiative, but interestingly these days it is the Democratic left that most often laments this nation’s investments in space. They believe, right or wrong, that the money is better spent on social programs that serve people. That doesn’t make them bad, but it hardly makes them Kennedy Democrats.

In short, Kennedy was, by today’s standards, a neoconservative. Again, he advocated tax cuts, had an aggressive foreign policy, and was wary of social engineering of the sort advocated by today’s Democrats, most notably his younger brother. He talked about the rule of law, and seemed to appreciate the limits of government. His most famous phrase – ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country – suggests that government, though it has its purposes, could not be the sole or even most important vehicle for fostering right-minded change.

His patriotism did not prevent him from reaching out to others around the globe. His speeches often addressed listeners from other nations and he articulated in a convincing way a real concern for their fate and their future. As leader of the free world, he would not abandon them to the forces of darkness – whether they be hunger, disease or communist tyranny. Yes, some of it was rhetoric, but it does not diminish the fact that Kennedy remains – abroad – one of our most popular presidents.

Style and substance

Like many of the men and women who have shaped our history, Kennedy’s style set him apart as much as substance. No one can deny his charm or wit, particularly relative to other politicians. He was the best when it came to television and public speaking. Since him, only Reagan has compared.

He also had a refreshing gift for candor. When his poll numbers went up after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he observed that the worse he performed, the more popular he became. He clearly enjoyed bantering with the press, and they with him, which partially explains why he was given the benefit of the doubt so often. He disarmed but also did not dodge the tough questions or try to gloss over the difficulties of a given issue.

He was a product of wealth and privilege. Democrats are selective about which of our political leaders can enjoy such pedigree without being ridiculed. It might be interesting for a moment to compare JFK with George Bush, who takes so much grief from Democrats and the left because of his privileged background.

Both men came from famous families. Those families were close, though the patriarch of the Kennedy clan was a tasteless and crude man by all accounts. JFK went to Harvard, Bush to Yale. Both were indifferent students. One inherited wealth from a father who worked shady deals, the other benefited from connections that provided ready-made opportunity. One chased women relentlessly and was addicted to pain medicines (please note Rush critics), while the other drank relentlessly, until reforming. JFK never got the chance to reform, though it is arguable whether he would have ever walked the straight road of fidelity or self discipline. Hugh Sidey, the presidential historian, suggests that Kennedy might well have been undone by his indiscretions, sooner or later.

JFK did serve in World War II, and wound up something of a war hero, though his candor was evident yet again when he observed that his only heroism was to be in a boat that got sunk. Nevertheless, Bush took a pass on Vietnam, as did many of the educated elite during that war – Republican and Democrat alike. JFK was a Senator whose achievements were marginal. Bush became governor of one of our largest states. All of this, and Al Gore’s own history, might explain why the Democrats never get much traction when they try to depict Bush as a product of privilege only. He is more than that, and so was Kennedy.

A national tragedy (and conspiracy?)

Whether you buy into the Kennedy hype or not, there is no question that the tragedy that has hung over the family is a tough to take. They have paid for their mistakes and excesses and then some. We all got another bitter taste of it a few years ago when JFK Jr. went down in a plane with his wife and sister-in-law, another stabbing wound in a nation already numbed by the Kennedy story and its many sad and sordid chapters. Even Malcolm Muggeridge, a trenchant debunker of Kennedy myths, noted the Shakespearean dimensions of it, and that was in the mid 1960s with so much more to come.

It is a particularly American trait to wish for happy endings. Whether that is a natural idealism borne of our youth and success as a nation, or whether it is television and Hollywood working on us, we have – since November 1963 -- somehow hoped the wrong could be set right, the loss redeemed. Those hopes inevitably resided in a little boy who saluted his father so many years ago and won a place in the heart of a nation. He need only have asked (though he might not have), and he would have had the Democratic nomination, and probably the presidency. When John Jr. went down in the dark waters near Cape Cod, it was as if the gods were punishing those who harbored such hopeful fantasies. There would be no resurrection, nor even a healing normalcy. The tragedy played on.

Out of the mists of nostalgia emerged a string of conspiracy theories about who killed Kennedy. The History Channel presented a compelling circumstantial case that Lyndon Johnson and his Texas cronies were responsible. This scenario is almost as convincing as the conspiracies that link the assassination to the mob, the defense establishment, to Cuban exiles or even the Soviet Union (despite its denials). In each instance, researchers have spent a lifetime compiling all kinds of evidence, including testimony from people who claim to have knowledge about those bleak days 40 years ago. There is only one problem – they can’t all be right, can they? Or did all work together in some kind of grand nefarious conspiracy?

There is a segment of our population that is ready to believe any explanation except the most obvious one – that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who ordered the murder weapon and whose fingerprints were on it, actually killed JFK. Some day, and I hope I am alive when it happens, a secret file or piece of evidence may turn up that tells us the final truth of what occurred. Until then, these assassination anniversaries will provide brisk sales for those who traffic in Kennedy lore.

There is this consolation. No one would have been more bemused by his fate as a martyr than John Kennedy himself. For all his political and personal gifts, the man was ultimately a pragmatist. His flaws were interwoven with his gifts and one sensed he never took himself as seriously as his legion of admirers did. He saw through himself, and knew the difference between the actor and the part. Surely, he would have found their grief and tributes overwrought, as they sought to transform him into some kind of secular saint who would have made right all that has gone wrong, if only….

Jack Kennedy liked a good cigar more than a symphony, and he liked gossip as much as the classics. He trod the same hard ground as the rest of us. However human the temptation, one has to question how helpful it is to torture ourselves, each anniversary, with what might have been. One suspects Kennedy would be the first to counsel us to learn to live with what is and do our best with it. This much is certain: that a lone gunman could create so much angst in a nation for so long is a testimony to the accidents – and fates – of history.

George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.

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