Mania and Melancholy in JFK’s Golden Anniversary

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“You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid having sex with me.”

Allison to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall

If a comic line from Woody Allen’s classic 1977 film is any indication, the waning days of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy will witness mounting sexual frustration.  How can Americans addled with conspiracy theories about the president’s death in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 get any sleep, let alone sex, while their televisions vibrate amidst a broadcast blitzkrieg of anniversary specials – documentaries, made-for-TV movies, “investigations” and nostalgic commemorations?  Of course, not everyone shares Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s “serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” Regardless of one’s views on the assassination, millions of us are this month enchanted by all things JFK.  Online a vast sandstorm of blogs, articles, reviews, and commentaries makes our eyes bleed.

Gorging on this JFK cornucopia, however, will not leave Americans satisfied.  The commemorative books, articles, shows, movies, exhibits and live events pique public interest in the life, work, death and legacy of JFK, but at a cost.  Much of the outpouring is opportunistic, mediocre, derivative, and – particularly the assassination conspiracies – nutty.  It is, alas, a not-so-golden anniversary. Of course, there are some serious and thoughtful contributions:  a new book about JFK’s advisers by the esteemed presidential biographer Robert Dallek; demands that Washington declassify all remaining documents pertaining to the assassination; and worthwhile museum exhibitions on Kennedy and retrospectives on Andy Warhol’s assassination art, which has been compared to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.  Tellingly, however, the new work is so narrowly focused on the brief Camelot era in the White House that it offers no new biography (aside from PBS’s solid if utterly conventional American Experience: JFK).  Despite some push back from naysayers appalled by Baby Boomers’ surging JFK nostalgia, the feeding frenzy continues.

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Perhaps the most important or influential retrospective is that of the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson.  Her lengthy review, “Kennedy, the Elusive President,” laments the weakness of most accounts of JFK and the absence, despite “40,000 books about him,” of a definitive biography.  “Readers,” according to Abramson, “can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.”  Citing the historian Robert Dallek, whom she concedes wrote “probably the best single-volume Kennedy biography” (An Unfinished Life, 2003), Abramson suggests historians have been hobbled by “the cultish atmosphere surrounding, and perhaps smothering, the actual man.” What she wants, evidently, is Kennedy’s Robert Caro.  While Lyndon B. Johnson has been lavished with attention in Caro’s massive, heavily researched multi-volume opus, JFK “still seeks his true biographer.”

In lieu of that, she proposes as the best analysis of Kennedy an essay penned during the presidential election of 1960 by the inimitable writer Norman Mailer, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” Though awed by JFK’s skills and zeitgeisty fit with the American electorate, Mailer had concluded that “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did.  One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.” For Mailer, as for many others who observed JFK, this “elusiveness” could either express “the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”

Abramson pairs Mailer’s period essay with William Manchester’s The Death of a President (1967), which began as the Kennedys’ official account but which ended with the family’s fierce struggle to suppress publication.  It is Manchester, according to Abramson, who has the most moving description of the assassination in the conclusion of his book.  How so?  He poignantly describes in two paragraphs the storage of the blood-soaked pink garb worn in Dallas by First Lady Jackie Kennedy.  While few could question the empathy and detail with which Manchester drew that vignette of the assassination’s aftermath, Abramson offers no reason for it to “deserve to stand out from everything else.”  It just does, apparently.  The historian Andrew J. Rotter thinks it odd that Abramson “scolds” historians and others for failing to produce “a perfect biography” of someone as complex as Kennedy.

If Abramson is frustrated by Kennedy’s chroniclers, so, too is Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott.  Dismissing “somber re-appraisals by the usual bores and lurid speculation by the usual loons,” Wolcott still feels the sting of an assassination he remembers from the sixth grade.  “For kids my age,” he writes, “it was like losing a father, a father who had all our motley fates in his hands.”  This statement has earned Wolcott a rebuke for gross exaggeration, but he nonetheless gives a jaunty rundown of the new JFK books, including the “docudrama-paced ticktocks of the assassination and its frantic aftermath” and “a crossfire of j’accuse fingers pointing every which way at the alleged guilty parties who plotted the president’s death.”  The commemorative flood is, he concludes, “too much and it’s not enough.  It will never be enough.  Readers will never be sated, because too many hidden dimensions and murky links remain, an atticful of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions, hints of the possible future of which we were robbed. History left us hanging.”

Despite the sense of fatalism and futility, these critics can have no illusion that JFK biographers will be vacating the field any time soon.  Thurston Clarke, whose JFK’s Last Hundred Days yields an attractive, if largely unpersuasive, argument for the president achieving greatness had Dallas not interrupted, predicts, “even if there are no more great JFK revelations, biographers and historians will continue to be drawn to this elusive man,” simply unable to resist exploring his character and essence.

If so, perhaps a taking of stock is in order.  What have biographers, historians, and other authors (as well as documentary and motion picture film makers) largely concentrated on, before and during this golden anniversary?  Perhaps inevitably, they describe Jack Kennedy’s politics, events such as the Cuban missile crisis, issues like civil rights and Vietnam, and of course, every detail (real and imagined) of the assassination.  Is it really surprising, then, that so many retrospectives conclude despairingly that we are as yet no nearer a full understanding of either the man or of the causes and meaning of his demise?

We’ve learned an awful lot from the best Kennedy researchers about why he proved equivocal on some issues, bold on others, and with most of the pertinent archival sources (both print and audio-visual) on his life and presidency now available, the scope for major factual discoveries, or even significant shifts in interpretation, steadily narrows.  As for basic disagreements of judgment, we are unlikely, in such a politically polarized era as ours, to resolve disputes over the nature of Kennedy’s liberalism or whether he handled Vietnam as well as he might.  The fields of research and argument, therefore, figure to become barren, especially with the arrival of ever more diggers.

I propose an alternative.  What if we take a longer view, one not confined to his “thousand days” as president (to say nothing of the few hours of November 22, 1963)?  By returning to biography, and a kind of biography less obsessed with political labels and establishing definitive “truths” about his record and what happened in Dallas, we could attain a deeper understanding of the man and the meaning of his death.  Reclaiming him from the arid remoteness of a marble monument, we can restore an appreciation for his humanity.  JFK the man – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is worth knowing.  His story is more edifying and useful than the contrived political roles we have imposed on him as part of our contemporary partisan, ideological, and cultural proxy wars.

What kind of biography could escape the constraints of hagiography and shallow debunking, wishful thinking about what JFK might have been and scandal-mongering or paranoid exposes of misdeeds and conspiracies, real and imagined?  In a second installment of this essay, I offer an idea for how to better make sense of Kennedy.

Larry Grubbs is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University, and the author of Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).