It opens with sagely advice from a bootlegger-turned-ambassador, Kennedy’s father, a man who knows a thing or two about public perception: “It’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are, and with the right amount of money, you can make them think whatever you want.”
The myth about Kennedy, one that has become so sacrosanct that it often risks becoming the accepted narrative of history, is that he was a man of formidable intellect and philosophical insight with just a dash of roguish charm, a man of vision, purpose and gifts unrivaled in his time, who could have saved America from the turmoil of the 1960s, if only he had lived. It’s nice, it’s pleasant, it’s exactly what Joe Kennedy wanted us to think and it’s better fiction than Edgar Allan Poe on a coke binge with David Foster Wallace, Stephen Vincent Benet and some other three-named guy, not named John F. Kennedy.
The fact that this version of JFK has persisted so long, despite the bombardment of historical research to the contrary, is a testament to how masterfully the intelligentsia surrounding Kennedy worked to craft and sell this image. If getting a miniseries canceled is any indication, they’re still at it.
The selling of JFK isn’t just embarrassing, it’s astounding, and the media were complicit every step of the way. For kicks, try pulling up old press conferences and watch the softballs fly. “How do you like the presidency, and would you recommend it to others?” “It’s been reported that you’ve returned to golf again, I’m wondering if you’d share how you feel returning to one of your favorite sports?” “Mr. President, could you do us a favor tonight, and explain what the orange Band-Aid is doing on your hand?” Actual questions, asked by actual White House Press Corp journalists. These are the same people who a few hours before knowingly watched prostitutes (note the plural) walk into the White House.
The whitewashing has continued unabated. It’s a little embarrassing to hear contemporary historians try to explain why the words “Kennedy” and “greatness” belong in the same sentence. He had a great sense of style, you say? He was charming as well? He even doted on his children? These are, no joke, actual highlights of Kennedy biographies. If the entire country was being set up on a blind date, than this guy sounds like a great catch, but as far as leader of the free world goes, it’s a little hard to get past the prolonged adolescence and raging daddy issues.
As favorable historians are quick to recite, Kennedy was first exposed, and thereafter revolted, by the wrenching poverty he encountered in West Virginia while campaigning there in 1960–nevermind that it took 43 years for a grown man to discover there’s poverty in the world, and that really sucks. Jack Kennedy gets bonus points just for trying.
A television program that revealed all of this would be in no certain terms apocalyptic for his legacy. Today, historical legacies are not made in books, those weighty tomes with bulging spines that stare down at us contemptuously from the shelf, mocking us with their complexity, depressing us with their time commitments, and scaring us back to our XBoxes. Legacies are, alas, the final summations that only fit into a sentence or two, and they are the only things that most people will ever bother with, which make them perfect fodder for the silver screen. They are a reduction, yes, and they are meant to put people’s minds at ease, so that in regards to this one topic, they can feel as if they know everything there is to know.
This is where Americans learn their history, from theirs wars to their presidents, it is the images from the screen that resonate with us most deeply. A show like this could do incredible damage to the Kennedy legacy, even precipitating the long-awaited historical revision of his public image. A few years ago, CBS pulled a miniseries “The Reagans” after prominent conservatives complained it portrayed Reagan as aloof and a tad homophobic, and Nancy as occasionally bitchy and a bit of a loon. These allegations probably had more truth in them than not, but to have them immortalized on film would have made these character faults the central narrative of his life, and been damning to the true accomplishments of the Reagan presidency. Imagine what it could do to a guy who hadn’t accomplished anything in the first place.
Each president makes his own distinctive contribution to the office, forming a part of its evolving legacy to its successors. George Washington for creating its limitations, Andrew Jackson for its populism, Abraham Lincoln for its national importance, Teddy Roosevelt for military powers, FDR for its bureaucratic reach. It is high-time John Kennedy’s contribution be made known as well, as the first president to harness and control public relations in the Oval Office. This is the real legacy of John Kennedy, a man who truly was ahead of his time in that respect, who used the arsenal of money and influence to sell his image to journalists who had not yet learned to guard against these tactics, to a public that wasn’t yet disillusioned by politicians.
His presidency was a paradox; never before had a man been so thoroughly feted before the public without revealing a thing about himself, never again would a president enjoy such uncritical adulation while doing practically nothing to advance the country. It really was an incredible accomplishment, and it may just be my opinion, but I think that story would make a pretty good movie, too.