The Kennedy Myth

 In the following Op-Ed by Joseph Epstein, the author accuses Kenendy and the image created of him by his staff as a reason for the demise of the Democratic Party.  As much as I agree that the Kennedy Legacy is exaggerated for later generations, hearing my parents talk about Kennedy and how he was viewed especially in Germany makes me believe that as much as he was a product of those around him, his charisma and presence still seemed to to instill an emotional connect (for better or worse) that remains both unique and in some respects unweakened.

In one of the vice-presidential debates during the 1988 campaign, Republican Dan Quayle attempted to fend off the argument that he was too young for the office of vice president by noting that he had served in Congress as long as John F. Kennedy when he had become president. This allowed his opponent, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, to reply: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The riposte has since become famous; it is probably the only thing for which Bentsen is remembered. But when he said, “Senetor, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” I thought, “That;s all right.  Jack Kennedy wasn’t really Jack Kennedy, either, at least not the way he is presented to us today.”

As someone with a vivid memory of Kennedy’s brief and lackluster term as president, I have been amused over the following 44 years to watch the myth of the greatness of John F. Kennedy grow. Here was a president who initiated no impressive programs, was less than notably courageous in coming to the aid of civil-rights workers in the South, got the nation enmeshed in one of the most unpopular wars in our history (Vietnam), and brought it to the edge of nuclear war in a probably unnecessary war of nerves with Nikita Khrushchev over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. In short, John F. Kennedy was a president who, based on the decisions he made or didn’t have the courage to make while in office, deserves to go down as one of the resoundingly mediocre figures in American presidential history.

And so he would have done but for the one brilliant decision he did make – to surround himself with a staff of Harvard men and Cambridge intellectuals who continue to supply him with an unrelenting public relations build-up. A powerful PR man named Ben Sonnenberg used to say, apropos of his clients, that he made large pedestals for small men. Mr. Sonnenberg could have learned a thing or two from the Kennedy staff men. To invent a greater Camelot, alas, one has to sham a lot.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Goodwin and Theodore Sorensen were among the circle around Kennedy – a president the British humorist Malcolm Muggeridge called “The Loved One” – who have kept pumping away at his already inflated reputation. Scheslinger, who started out in life as an historian and ended up as a courtier, worked most assiduously at this project, writing thick, overly dramatized books on both Jack and Bobby Kennedy, books with a very low truth quotient. But everyone pitched in. All had a stake, for the greater they could make John F. Kennedy seem, the more heightened would the drama of their own lives appear.

The Kennedy public-relations juggernut continues to roll.  Recent evidence of it is found in the July/August issue of Washington Monthly.  Its cover story, “The Speech I Wish The Winner Would Give,” was written by Mr. Sorenson, who is best known for the phrase, planted in his boss’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  He is  – only in America! – the country’s most famous ghostwriter; or, if you prefer, its msot noted politcal ventriloquist.

The speech Mr. Sorenson would write for the 2006 Democratic presidential nominee contains neither surprises in the realm of policy nor lilting turns of speech.  Instead, it would have the candidate essentiallu avow that he will do nothing George Bush has done.

The speech is, then, the usual canned goods, notable only for straining after the Kennedyesque tone; its final paragraph begins: “I’m told that John. F. Kennedy was fond of quoting Archimedes…”  Yet in its very insubstantiality it reminds one of how the Kennedy administration’s insignificant years in office and the decades-long public-relations campaign that followed it have skewered and ultimately helped wreck the Democratic Party.

John F. Kennedy & Co. took the party up-market, making it an Ivy league, and, later, a Hollywood operation.  After the Kenendy administration, the Democrats were no longer  the party of the little man (Harry Truman’s party), or the party of the underdog (FDR’s party), but that of the intellectual and cultural sahibs pretending to speak for the little man and the underdogs because it makes them feel virtuous to do so; they turn politics into an affair of snobbery, where politicians are judged on eloquence not substance.  One recalls how much of an outsider the Kennedy people made Lyndon Baines Johnson feel – LBJ, that vulgar texan who attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College.

Because of the regularity with which John. F. Kennedy’s name is invoked by his skillful PR flacks, the Democrats keep turning up rather anemic Kennedy imitators – Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, John Kerry (with only occasional genuine hustler like Bill Clinton popping up almost by accident) – to lead their presidential tickets.  But the criteria for president of the United States aren’t the same as those set by the deans of admission at harvard or Yale, Brown or Duke.  The happy snobbery of felling culturally superior and morally virtuous that is at the heart of the Kennedy myth shouldn’t be what politics is about.

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