Joseph Epstein: How the JFK myth helped wreck the Democratic Party

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of "Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide" (Eminent Lives, 2006).]

... 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 juggernaut 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 most noted political ventriloquist....

John F. Kennedy & Co. took the party up-market, making it an Ivy League and, later, a Hollywood operation. After the Kennedy administration, the Democrats were no longer the party of the little man (Harry Truman's party), or the party of the underdog (Franklin Delano Roosevelt'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 elegance 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 an occasional genuine hustler like Bill Clinton popping up almost by accident) -- to head 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 feeling 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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Vernon Clayson - 7/24/2007

JFK told a crowd of celebrity worshippers that he was a Berliner, Ronald Reagan told the Russians to take down the wall. It's obvious which is more meaningful, the wall is gone. JFK said we would put a man on the moon within ten years, hard to believe that the feminists didn't complain that he said "man", at best he was a dreamer or maybe he just got caught up in a Jackie Gleason Ralph Kramden skit,
"Pow,to the moon, Alice" and the femmes laughed it off.

Scott Beckman - 7/24/2007

This article was lame. I'm no big JFK fan and I agree that some aspects of Kennedy's record are poor or unremarkable.

However, to suggest that because he didn't do much in those areas that you should simply ignore notable acheivements that contribute to the Kennedy "greatness" legend is simply ill-informed at best and dishonest at worst.

Just a couple of examples. Kennedy's call to "send a man to the moon in a decade" was realized and is arguably one of the great human achievements of the 20th Century.

Kennedy's "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech to 600,000 Germans at the height of the Cold War is often credited as a remarkable diplomatic achievement in that, in a phrase, Kennedy energized the people in the streets of Berlin to stand resolved against Communism at a critical moment. You have to address that kind of analysis about his distinctiveness as a diplomat before you call the guy "mediocre."

It may be overstated and mundane, but there's the whole Camelot thing, bringing a sense of youth, and optimism, and energy, to the Presidency and people's impression of the Presidency and the nation about itself that were sorely needed as an antidote to the stodgy 50s.

Etc. etc. etc. I'm no historian, but these are some of the "mediocre" benchmarks you'd have to dismiss in order to convince this unschooled citizen that Kennedy was "ordinary" or "run of the mill. I'm not arguing he was the best ever or anything, but c'mon, it really comes off here like you're just picking a bone here, not trying to contribute some reasonably objective understanding to historical discussion.

James R. Taylor - 7/22/2007

Hilarious to see Epstein, of all people, mocking the "happy snobbery of feeling culturally superior," which on the evidence of his work seems to be his only emotion.

Vernon Clayson - 7/19/2007

I don't believe we have targets worthy of nuclear weapons, we could level all of the cities in the Middle East with conventional bombs. That would, of course, bring out the melancholy whining about killing civilians so we are reluctant but, boy, would it work. The car and IED bombers think they know explosives, we could easily show them levels they could not comprehend. It is something to consider.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/19/2007

Mr. Clayson has the armchair warrior's view of nuclear war. You have this idea that somehow use of such weapons of mass destruction and slaughter are useable on this planet.
Amorality and sanctity of his god given position to hurl the thunderbolts from that shining city on a hill to vaporize enemies real and imagined.
Don't you know both wars were based on lies told to get into these countries for other purposes? Does it matter to you? It does to me. Just as Epstien's point about puplicity over fact concerning JFK's presidency was manipulated.So does it function now for both parties and their candidates empolying Madison Ave. firms to create what appearances they want.
A dose of clear eyed skeptisism,especially in relation to government and war should be part of the analysis of every person.
Remember this Mr. Clayson,it wasn't only in Vietnam the USA attacked with more tonnnage of bombs than in WWII but also Laos and Cambodia too. Lemay wanted to use nuclear weapons there.

Vernon Clayson - 7/17/2007

Mr. Storms went way off subject asking what if it were Nixon in this situation, apparently forgetting that Nixon pulled JFK's fat out of the fire with Vietnam. He also forget to consider that Nixon dealt with Khruschev before the Camelot years. Kennedy, like Clinton, had nice hair, nothing under it, of course. And we badly needed a Curtis LeMay in Vietnam and still today in the Middle East.

Guy Storms - 7/14/2007

Regretably, Mr. Epstein's analysis of JFK and his presidency are fundamentally accurate.

What is missing, however, is the broader commentary on all political campaigns and all candidates since - it is not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well who have learned the value of PR techniques from the Kennedy legacy.

Epstein does JFK one disservice, however. He and he alone, as President, avoided nuclear war by staring down the enemy. The true enemy was not the Russians, but JFK's own military Chiefs of Staff - primarily madman extrordinaire Curtis Emerson LeMay, General of the American Airforce and vice presidential running mate of independent candidate George C. Wallace in 1968. It was his desire to "fry" Cuba and do the same to the Russians.

It is civilization's good fortune that JFK was the man he was. Had Nixon been in office at this point in history, the world may have been a very different place today.

Michael Green - 7/13/2007

Let's see. Last week, it was the role of interest groups wanting to protect women's rights that ruined the Democratic party. The week before, it was the commitment to civil rights, which some Republicans voted for in the 1960s and since have abandoned. A month ago, it was this ridiculous belief that the Earth was in danger from global warming (ridiculous?). And meanwhile, recent polls show every major Democratic presidential candidate defeating a Republican opponent, and Republicans scurrying and worrying about keeping control of Congress.

One of the beauties of history is the awareness we have that if we look at it as fairly as possible, we can see both good and evil, right and wrong--not a lack of moral absolutes, but the dangers of absolutism. Mr. Epstein brings to mind the wonderful comment Eric Sevareid made about Spiro Agnew, that he is certain of everything, and that's what makes him look so serene.