Making Sense of JFK 50 Years Later

JFK sailing

In a previous post earlier this week, I lamented the mediocrity yielded by the manic rush of TV specials, movies, books and blogs about John F. Kennedy and the golden anniversary of his assassination.  Needless to say, the flood waters have continued rising.  Living presidents are in on the act.  At this point, having barely kept my head above water, I find meaning in small things.  Something important about JFK, his assassination, and how we might think about all of that in the aftermath of this anniversary comes to mind in looking at a couple of this week’s nuggets from The New Yorker and The Daily Beast.

Though self-referential, “John F. Kennedy in The New Yorker” is worth a read.  It summarizes the thoughts of Richard Rovere, The New Yorker “Letter from Washington” columnist for many years, who wrote a richly empathic eulogy of JFK.  Though overstated (Rovere credited Kennedy with “a curiosity as broad as Montagine’s”), his column for the November 30, 1963 issue captured a big part of why JFK matters, a half century later, and why he continues to exert a mysterious pull.  Kennedy, wrote Rovere, possessed “a critical intelligence and a critical temper” and had been “the first modern President who gave one a sense of caring – and of believing that a President ought to care – about the whole quality and tone of American life.”

Recognizing, perhaps, the relative paucity of legislative achievements during JFK’s “Thousand Days,” Rovere, like many commentators then and now, shifted the admiring focus to the intangible matter of establishing a refined national tone.  What made JFK a unique president had been his ambition (and, one might add, First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s) to shape “American taste.” Like the Kennedys and their galaxy of intellectuals and artists at the court of Camelot, the broad mass of the American people could, JFK seemed to believe, come to share “his own respect for excellence of various kinds” and his quest to “help a fundamentally good society to become a good, even brilliant, civilization.”  Rovere astutely noted that Kennedy had relished this self-appointed role “as a promoter, an impresario.”

 JFK and Jackie

The Kennedys’ impact as patrons of the arts and conscientious promoters of culture is as well-known and fondly recalled as JFK’s abundant energy and exuberant presence.  In 1997 the literary critic Diana Trilling regaled readers of The New Yorker with her recollections of a White House dinner at which Jackie had appeared “a hundred times more beautiful than any photograph had ever indicated” while JFK “was handsome and exuded energy – I could feel it even at my distance from him.”  This matches the painter Elaine de Kooning’s obsessive response to the president as “incandescent, golden,” “bigger than life” and inhabiting “a different dimension.”  The results of her zealous quest to convey something of that emotional intensity can be appreciated in Washington at the National Portrait Gallery.

Elaine de Kooning's JFK painting

As Trilling and de Kooning’s ebullient descriptions suggest, despite being somewhat shy, diffident, and deeply private, Kennedy electrified not merely with his skillfully crafted words and his immaculate hair, teeth, and perfect, fashion-forward couture, but with some emotional impulse, a kind of distilled charisma rare even in the world of high politics.

These overwrought, often deifying homages to JFK should not be dismissed.  They indicate how vital it remains that we avoid the kind of political reductionism that often plagues biographers of all ideological shades.  His appeal was never political, but visceral.

Emotional intensity (despite JFK’s famous cool) and a sensuous life of pain and pleasure are, in any complete reckoning of the Kennedy experience, essential.  Unlike most Americans in 1963, we know all too well that beneath the perfect façade of a vibrant, vigorous young president with a chic wife and adorable young children, Jack Kennedy labored under excruciating pain from a wide array of ailments, illnesses and injuries, and that he suffered (if that is the way to put it) from a kind of pathological or addictive need for sexual conquest.  Robert Dallek’s exhaustive research in Kennedy’s medical files brought much of the story of his pain to light in an authoritative fashion in An Unfinished Life (2003), and both the medical and especially the erotic dimensions of Kennedy’s life before and during the White House years are insightfully explored in Michael  O’Brien’s massive (and unfortunately oft-overlooked) John F. Kennedy: A Biography (2005). (Not for nothing do many readers feel pulled to Chapter 33, “Connoisseur of the Sexual Game,” which immediately follows the chapter devoted to the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

Naturally, many lesser authors have seized on Kennedy’s mistresses and vast-yet-confusing diet of pills and shots to construct a plethora of opportunistic, sensationalist pulp.  Others, notably Chris Matthews of Hardball, swing hard in the opposite direction, rendering JFK an Elusive Hero whose life was its own Profile in Courage because he overcame the treachery of his own body.  A more interesting example of this kind of medical-centric treatment comes from James G. BlightWith Janet M. Lang, Blight has been devoted to establishing for Kennedy a reputation as a masterful Cold War crisis manager who, had not the assassin’s bullets intervened, would have spared America the horrors of Vietnam.  Check out the title of their forthcoming book: JFK’s Backbone: Defeating the Hawks and Waging Peace in a Dangerous World.

In time for the anniversary, a preview of their argument has appeared here.  Blight and Lang’s take on Kennedy is ideologically admirable and personally empathic, but historically dubious.  They contend that JFK’s awful health problems (which they actually exaggerate – President Kennedy, they insist, was “fundamentally a disabled person”), which frequently forced him to depend on back braces and crutches (and which might well have reduced him to a wheelchair during a putative second term), not only made his successful avoidance of World War III more impressive, but actually caused his success.  The agonies of a lifetime of faulty medical diagnoses, constant tests and changes of medication, life-threatening surgery and near-death experiences taught JFK “never to trust experts – whether doctors or generals” and to “distrust predictions by analysts – whether medical, military, civilian, or deriving from anyone else supposed to be an expert.”

This, Blight and Lang argue, prepared President Kennedy to see through bogus, belligerent and bad advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and even civilian national security officials during crises, most notably the “thirteen days” in October 1962 when the two superpowers edged to the brink of war over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.  Life thus taught Kennedy that when experts assure you that there is a quick military solution, they are as likely to be spouting “bullshit” (as JFK himself characterized boastful talk of “instant reaction” military strikes) as the many doctors who failed to alleviate or cure his physical pain.

JFK and general

It’s hard not to be sympathetic, given Blight and Lang’s painstaking research and their sensible emphasis on Kennedy’s decision-making prudence (I often tell students that whatever else he did good or bad, JFK deserves a measure of universal gratitude for showing restraint during the Cuban Missile Crisis).  However, what we have here is another instance of the search for a useable JFK.  Just as conservatives write about Kennedy as a proto-conservative to legitimize their own agenda, liberals are tempted to embrace an imagined JFK who would have avoided escalation in Southeast Asia and wound down the Cold War in what would have inevitably been a two-term presidency.

Blight and Lang not only ignore the ways in which Kennedy’s hyper-secrecy and dishonesty about his health (which extended even to his two official White House physicians, neither of whom possessed complete knowledge of his bevvy of medications) compromised his presidency—they also presume a psychologically implausible “lesson” he would have learned about the distrust of authority.  Surely, in his presidential decision-making, JFK valued expertise in many ways.  He is, after all, the King Arthur who brought to his court the “Best and the Brightest.”  His skepticism about blithely optimistic proposals for force did not prevent his authorization of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, gradual escalation in Vietnam, and a sprawling secret world of CIA covert operations against Fidel Castro and other Cold War adversaries.

Exploring Jack Kennedy’s mindset, his emotions, and his experiences of pain and cultivation of pleasure cannot be done just to erect yet another façade.  If this not-so-golden anniversary of assassination commemoration overdose has taught us nothing else, perhaps finally we can admit that Kennedy’s politics, policies, decisions, and personal behavior, while fascinating, yield no easy answers, no uncomplicated, usable- past-JFK.  Learning about his life is its own reward.  JFK need not continue a weary march in our contemporary proxy wars.  After a half century, it’s time to let Kennedy rest.

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 1960 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).