Why We're Still Obsessed With the Kennedys

JFK's "interrupted promise" keeps America in Camelot's grip 50 years later.

November 4, 2013, 1:00 AM

Nov. 4, 2013— -- America still can't get enough of Camelot.

Just witness the books, films, special museum exhibits and a host of experts ready to whet the appetite of admirers in the countdown to the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

The handsome young president was in office for only about 1,000 days, but the image of his New Frontier -- a hopeful time before the assassinations of brother Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the ensuing political turmoil -- still lives on.

"My sense is that it is largely a story of interrupted promise," said Russell Riley, co-chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

"The elevation of Kennedy in the public mind is inextricably linked with the tragedy of his death. So much would have been possible had he lived."

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Americans have also romanticized the "nostalgia and mythology" of the early 1960s, a time before the war in Vietnam escalated and college campuses erupted in protests and violence, Miller said.

"In no place is there a bigger cottage industry than in what Kennedy would have done if he were still alive," he added.

Research suggests that Kennedy was "getting restive" about the war as a result of the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was losing faith in his military advisers in Vietnam.

There was "evidence to support" the theory that Kennedy would have stopped the Vietnam War, Miller said.

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Instead, Kennedy successor Lyndon B. Johnson, despite pushing through the civil rights legislation championed by the young president, escalated the war. Indeed, Johnson's political unpopularity led to his decision not to run for a second term in 1968 and Republican Richard M. Nixon took up the mantle of war.

"What Joe Kennedy did was imbue his children with the understanding - almost the command - that because they had money, good looks, intelligence and self-confidence, they had a responsibility to contribute as best they could to public service." -- David Nasaw, "The Patriarch"

Johnson's war on poverty was also deeply rooted in Kennedy's agenda, University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato said at a news conference last month promoting his new Kennedy book.

President Ronald Reagan used Kennedy to justify his tax cuts and cold war policy, Sabato said. And President George W. Bush followed in Reagan's footsteps, at times using Kennedy's words to support his tax cuts and fiscal policy.

Some historians credit Jacqueline Kennedy for creating the myth of Camelot, whose lines -- "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot" -- came from the score of the popular Broadway musical playing at the time that drew on the Arthurian legend.

A week after Kennedy's husband's assassination, she called political reporter Theodore White to Hyannis Port, Mass., to shape how history would view the Kennedy presidency.

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On Dec. 6, 1963, White published an essay, "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," that invoked the idealized metaphor in Life, the country's most popular magazine at the time.

"All of it is manufactured," said Joyce Hoffman, associate professor of journalism at Old Dominion University in Virginia and author of the 1995 book "Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion."

"Not anyone ever mentioned Camelot during the Kennedy years," she said. "Even Kennedy's own staff and cabinet members were appalled at the idea. … Kennedy above all was a pragmatist and would have shuddered at the notion of something so whimsical as a fairly tale like that to characterize his administration."

Hoffmann argues that White lost his objectivity and his distortion of reality had a lasting impact on the nation.

"It endures because it speaks to our wishes for a less complicated world, where it 'never rained until sundown,'" she said. "The bad guys were simpler. Just the Russians."

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But generations later, the Kennedy dynasty has become a kind of U.S. royalty. Anchored in a spirit of service to others, it still captivates the nation's imagination.

President Kennedy was one of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy, a self-made Boston millionaire many times over who made the family fortune on Wall Street, in real estate, in Hollywood and liquor distribution. He also served briefly as ambassador to the U.K. Court of St. James.

"What Joe Kennedy did was imbue his children with the understanding -- almost the command -- that because they had money, good looks, intelligence and self-confidence, they had a responsibility to contribute as best they could to public service," said David Nasaw, author of "The Patriarch," the 2012 runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.

"All the kids took that seriously," Nasaw said. "When you look at other political dynasties, every one of them sort of veers off, really using their celebrity contacts to build or enlarge the family fortune."

But the family has been as well-known for tragedy and scandal. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was considered responsible for the 1969 drowning death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, which nearly derailed his political career.

The third generation of Kennedys has grabbed its own headlines: John Kennedy Jr. and wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy died in a 1999 plane crash; Robert F. Kennedy's children experienced drug abuse, rape allegations and a death; Maria Shriver suffered a humiliating divorce from then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Ted Kennedy's children experienced cancer and drug abuse.

At the same time, many of the Kennedy heirs have used their celebrity to help the environment, run for political office and help the mentally ill.

Author Nasaw argues that the Kennedy family's service to America has far outweighed the scandals.

"The family could have gone to live in Monte Carlo in a kind of splendid isolation," Nasaw said. "But they stood for something."

The Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, with its spin of conspiracy theories, is enough to keep the mythology alive.

"It's an astounding story, a frightening one, but also a great story that lasts," Nasaw said. "A man, shot down literally in his prime when we don't know what happened. And it's an unfinished story that doesn't have an ending."

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