JFK's court was no Camelot

John F Kennedy

As 2013 comes to an end, I am reminded by Dave and Kate Haslett's The Date-A-Base Book, that between January and December 2013 "over 4,000 newsworthy anniversaries" will have occurred.

There is the likes of the serious example of Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" speech before a very large crowd in Washington DC on 28 August 1963, to the trivial in that same year, with the release of the first LP by the Beatles.

One of the memorable anniversaries this year was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy (JFK), which happened on 22 November 1963, as the open top Lincoln Continental in which he and his party were being driven, traversed Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas.

The shots fired from Oswald's gun would propel President Kennedy to a legendary status where his failings, such as the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion, were forgotten and "what would have been" was always so much better than what actually occurred. Helping this scenario along from an early stage, though maybe not deliberately, was his wife.

On 6 December 1963, the then recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, gave an interview to Theodore H White of Life magazine in which she quoted lines from the late President's favourite musical, Camelot:

"Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot." (Lerner and Loewe, 1960)

Mrs Kennedy went on to add: "There'll be great Presidents again but there'll never be another Camelot again…it will never be that way again."

In comparing her late husband, President John 'Jack' F Kennedy, and his tragic assassination on 22 November of that year to the death of King Arthur, a legendary figure in medieval chivalric literature, the former First Lady did her part to cloak JFK's tenure in office in a glow which it did not really merit.

For better or worse, this Camelot theme was adopted by a sympathetic media and further promoted by friends, admirers and those close to the deceased President including noted historian and "court writer", Arthur M Schlesinger Jr.

Mr Schlesinger had been appointed Special Assistant to the President in January 1960, a post specially created for the prominent Democrat in order to draw this sometime adviser and speechwriter away from Harvard.

One of the founding members of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in the late 1940s, Mr Schlesinger would remain very close to the Kennedy family all his life – he died in 2007 – and could be openly contemptuous of those who opposed them. A notable target of his venom in the 50s and 60s was the former Republican Vice President, Richard M Nixon, but he also targeted those Democrats outside the Kennedy circle that he perceived to pose a threat.

The distinguished academic, more than any other person, created "Camelot" and one must be careful of his bias. In a table measuring "Presidential Greatness" which he compiled in 1997 and which has been quoted in several publications since, Mr Schlesinger placed Kennedy in the "High Average" bracket, below Eisenhower but two above Lyndon B Johnson, when really, President Kennedy's 34 months in office hardly warrant this. (President Nixon, despite others acknowledging his achievements, particularly in foreign affairs, Mr Schlesinger lists amongst the failures).

If one were able to return to the streets of the United States during those first days and weeks after President Kennedy's assassination fifty years ago, one would likely still be aware of an aftermath of shock but, thankfully, as yet absent were the all too many conspiracy theories surrounding his death which would soon arise.

Too many Americans would find it hard to comprehend that an unbalanced ex-marine and misfit called Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President from his "sniper's nest" in the Texas School Book Depository Building. He had left the rifle and spent ammunition at the scene, had in the recent past been photographed with the gun, was absent from the roll call when officers went to investigate the building…Oh yes, and shortly after fleeing the School Book Depository, Oswald just happened to shoot Dallas Patrolman J D Tippit four times with a revolver in cold blood as the officer exited his car to question him. This last was witnessed by several people close by and was initially a separate investigation to the search for the President's assassin.

Suffice to say that the new President, Lyndon B Johnson, set up the Warren Commission to investigate all aspects of his predecessor's killing and found that Oswald acted alone. Several other US Government investigations have taken place since and have concurred with the Warren Commission's conclusions. It is worth remembering that the Commission reported to, amongst others, President Kennedy's inner circle which included the late-President's brother, Robert Kennedy, at the time US Attorney General.

President Kennedy was a highly intelligent, gregarious, charming and perceptive man with film star looks. He was "young" for such a senior political figure. A Senator by the age of 35, at 43 he became the second-youngest president after Theodore Roosevelt and claimed to project a new politics, whatever that was supposed to mean. His time had come just as TV was really beginning to dominate the media and he was meticulous in his presentation to the world, both of himself, his lovely wife and young family.

His rhetoric was exceptional and his delivery left nothing to chance. It is funny therefore that during the political debates for the presidential election in 1960 against his opponent Richard Nixon, those watching on TV thought he had won whilst those listening on radio favoured Nixon! There, radio just like the 'old politics' spoke of the past.

Throughout his political career, however, JFK was ever pragmatic and would not risk political defeat for a point of principle, no matter how he personally felt. Taking the opportunity shortly before the 1960 Presidential Election to phone Mrs King to offer his sympathy on her husband, Martin Luther King Jr's arrest for taking part in a sit-in protest, impressed the wife and father of the civil rights activist but Mr King Jr thought it just a political ploy.

Now in office, President Kennedy's inaction on civil rights and his refusal to take head-on the segregationist Southern Democrats, ultimately resulted in the quarter-million March on Washington on 28 August 1963 and Reverend King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Civil rights legislation would be the work of President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who had much more to lose than JFK from Massachusetts.

JFK could also be utterly ruthless. His campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1960 against Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, was so dirty that one of his staunchest supporters on the campaign, Franklin D Roosevelt Jr, son of the former President, later sent Senator Humphrey a written letter of apology – though after Senator Kennedy had won the nomination.

Such matters became forgotten with the President's assassination and his numerous affairs would largely become public knowledge only much later after his death.

There is no doubt that many of the speeches made by Jack Kennedy, before and after he became President, inspired his listeners then, and can continue to do so today. He had flare and panache which neither of his two successors, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, could ever hope to match. Despite the considerable accomplishments of President Johnson in particular, it is only recently that he is emerging from under the shadow of JFK.

Presidents Clinton and Obama have each acknowledged a debt that they feel they owe President Kennedy and President Obama's campaign for office could have been copied straight from the past, calling for "Hope", "Progress", "Change", "Renewal".

President Obama though has learned the hard way on a number of occasions that great speeches engender optimism and expectations that cannot always be fulfilled and if little or nothing transpires, the result is disenchantment and cynicism – and a notable fall in approval ratings.

President Kennedy did not suffer any noticeable decline in his approval ratings and these had soared after his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis – the conditions that the Russians had set were kept from the public for several years to come. Yet it was worries on the re-election trail that had brought the President's early campaigning to Texas in the first place and JFK was too intelligent a man not to understand that glitz and style are no substitutes for real substance in the longer run.