Folks, after last week’s fun, I figured I might as well stay in the general vicinity of time and stick around for a while. Then I found Dallek’s JFK biography, and the rest is history, as they say.
The bad news first – I didn’t really learn anything new.
Quick. What’s the first things that come to mind when I say “JFK”? Jackie! Dallas! The Missile Crisis! The Bay of Pigs! Bobby! The New Frontier! “The Torch has been passed on to a new generation!”
That’s pretty much it. That’s JFK in a nutshell, and he has become such a mythical figure – such an omnipresence in our pop culture – that it’s really more interesting to see what isn’t there.
Like a legislative landmark bill. Can you tell me one law that JFK passed? Chances are you can’t – simply because he didn’t. He wasn’t very good at bending Congress to his will, and it shows. Also, JFK was always more interested in foreign policy than domestic legislation, and the former doesn’t necessitate working with Congress.
Also absent: any leadership on the Civil Rights Movement. It often slips the public’s memory, but the March on Washington – the one where Martin Luther King Jr made his ‘I have a dream’ speech – happened during Kennedy’s time at the White House.
It wasn’t that JFK was against Civil Rights – it was just that he wasn’t. how should we put it, overly concerned by it. He didn’t have skin in the game, and often with the Kennedys, politics was personal – it was about what benefited them, not what was morally the right thing to do.
(They did make sure that the March went smoothly – Bobby went so far to ensure that no police dogs were present – but still. The Kennedys perfectly show how the white majority saw the movement – theoretically, they were all for equal rights, but they also didn’t see the necessity to march themselves.)
And because we’re bashing JFK right now, let’s go all the way and blow up one big myth: That of the romance of the century. Jack and Jackie. My ass. I mean. It’s difficult to speak about a relationship that isn’t yours, but because theirs was so public – and, let’s be real, used by both to push their personal agendas – let’s talk about it.
I am convinced that JFK never loved Jackie. Refusing to rush to Jackie’s side when she had a miscarriage, instead choosing to spend time with his mistresses on his yacht? No love. Being jealous of Jackie for the attention and adoration she got during their time in Paris? No love. Yelling at Jackie in front of his advisors for spending too much money? No love.
See, that’s where I ran into problems with Bobby, and that’s where I run into problems with JFK. I feel like there is this myth that hides everything that doesn’t fit the bill. And in their case, this myth was created by themselves. And the public jumped at it, loved it, upheld the myth so much that in the end, reality doesn’t matter anymore.
We love to hear and tell the story of the young President who gave America hope, who saved the world from nuclear devastation, who loved his wife, who died so tragically young before he could fulfill his full potential.
It’s a good story, I give you that.
But glancing over JFK’s faults also means that we cannot have an honest discussion about his place in history, because the only way to see him is through the lens that he gave us.
If anything, JFK is a case study of public relations and the power of a carefully managed public persona.
This is something this book doesn’t mention, but I think it should. Every JFK biography should come with a warning that even the raw sources are carefully drafted propaganda. With the Kennedys, it is never easy. Do we love him, or do we love his image? There’s glimpses of the truth, but you have to look for it – and, more importantly, you have to want to look for it.
PS one quick fact that I didn’t know – and didn’t learn from this book: JFK was buried without his brain because THEY LOST IT. Or someone stole it, which is even more wild, ON AIR FORCE ONE.
Seriously. They put the body on the plane with a small-ish hole in the cranium, and when they landed, the hole was bigger and there was no brain.
All of this sounds like a really weird episode of XFiles, but it is true. What a world we live in, eh?