Camelot Not Quite: My Reflections on JFK, Fifty Years After

This piece is, in some sense, obligatory.  Just about everyone alive and out of the crib then remembers where he or she was when they learned that Jack Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on 22 November 1963.  Although there have been recent potshots at the Boomers’ obsession with the subject, it’s not a bad enterprise to step back and take a look at this turning point event.  The first question is, “Turning point to what?” but I’ll get to that.

So to answer the obligatory question: I was home sick from school.  We lived in Lookout Mountain, TN then, and I spent a lot of time sick from the various allergies and pollution that characterized the region (the pollution is gone, the plethora of pollen isn’t.)  With little to do, I turned on the television to discover that our President had been shot, and the rest of the events that unfolded afterwards came in black and white: Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby, the funeral process.  It swept aside just about everything else for several days.

One thing of local interest that got swept aside was the centenary of the Battle of Chattanooga, including Lookout Mountain itself and Missionary Ridge.  In one sense this was regrettable: the Battles for Chattanooga were a major milestone on the road to Appomattox, and the Civil War remains the central event of American history.  In another sense it was not; to live in or around Chattanooga is to commemorate that war every day, both in terms of the many monuments that dot the place (it is one of the best preserved battlefields of that war) and in terms of the North-South interchange that’s a part of daily life here.

My family’s view of Jack Kennedy was not a high one.  But our situation, in some ways, mirrored his, and the reason it did related to that same Civil War that got shoved aside in a nation’s grief.

When we moved the family business—and the family—to Chattanooga in 1960, we had over a century of success in this country, which included public service and civic prominence.  We quickly found out, however, that success may have been more readily obtained in these United States than elsewhere, but transferring that success was more easily said than done.  At the time (and to a lesser extent still) Chattanooga was dominated by a relatively small group of families, most of whom were perched on Lookout Mountain and were descendants of people who came to Chattanooga from the—ahem—North after the Civil War.  (The term “carpetbaggers” has been applied here, but technically it’s inaccurate: Tennessee never formally went through Reconstruction.)  You’d think that there would be an invite for us, but there wasn’t: this bunch expected a long, multi-generational integration into their society, and for my father, coming from a family that considered itself a prominent WASP clan, that was a hard pill to swallow.

Turning to Jack Kennedy, to understand the political idea of Jack, Bobby, Ted and their descendants, you have to go back to their father, old Joe Kennedy.  This was a man with an axe to grind.  Growing up in Boston, he was rejected by Boston’s very WASP Brahmin aristocracy, Ivy Leaguer though he was, because he was a) Irish and b) Catholic.  That induced hatred, hatred that passed down to the sons.  His ambitions for them were in no small measure to prove that he could beat the WASP’s at their own game, and he was largely successful, although his family paid an enormous price in the process.  In some ways their signature accomplishment was Teddy’s promotion of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, when legal immigration was opened up to more than white Europeans.  My guess is they figured that, if the first wave of immigration couldn’t finish the WASPs off, the second would.

Much has been made about “Camelot” and the romance of Jack, Jackie and the family in the White House.  Boomers tend to look back on the era as a sort of paradise lost, but it’s worth observing that the Boomers didn’t vote for or against him: our parents did.  (Mine didn’t; because they moved in 1960 and 1964, residency requirements blocked them from voting against either Jack or Lyndon Johnson, whom they affectionately called “Flap Ears.”)  Jack’s win in 1960 was a squeaker, facilitated by both Dick Daley’s control of Chicago’s voting machines and Johnson’s pull in Texas.  But our parents, coming off of the Depression, World War II, and in the process of raising the most insufferable brats the world has ever known, longed for the urbanity and grace that the Kennedys brought to the White House.  The loss of that, and the subsequent chaos that ensued in this country, have put a glow on the era that it really does not deserve.

Considering that glow leads us to Jack Kennedy’s legacy.  Would things have really been better if he had lived?  Would his reputation?  From a legislative standpoint, it’s hard to make the case.  Johnson, for all of his differences with Kennedy, pretty much carried his water on legislation, which included the Civil Rights Act and Medicare.  Much of the social revolution of the era was greased by the Supreme Court, and it’s hard to see that Kennedy would have had a different impact on that.  But the issue that would have made or broken Jack with the Boomers was Vietnam.  Jack didn’t quite start our involvement in Vietnam, but he increased it.  It’s hard to see that the man who brought the U.S. closer to nuclear war that it had been before or since in the Cuban Missile Crisis throttling it back.  Jack’s assassination was a tragedy, but having Vietnam hung around his neck would have dimmed just about any afterglow he had.

Today we have comparisons of Jack Kennedy with Barack Obama.  In some ways the comparison is fruitful.  Barack Obama too was ushered in by a wave of enthusiasm by a new voting generation, but the suffering is different: the Millennials, scarred by a generation of fatherlessness, Boomer conflict and eroding economic prospects, turned to a relatively young, charismatic man.  Given that entrance, it is likely that Barack Obama will ascend to folk hero status no matter how badly his time as Occupant comes out (just look at Latin America and figures such as Juan Peron and Hugo Chavez for comparison).

But cooler heads may have a different idea.  To use Lloyd Bentsen’s pithy phrase, Barack Obama is no Jack Kennedy.  But more profound is the fact that the United States, and especially the government itself, isn’t what it was when Jack Kennedy demanded that people ask what they could do for the country.  An easy comparison is putting a man on the moon; Jack Kennedy put forth an ambitious timetable, the government found the people with the right stuff and within that timetable we had a giant leap for mankind.  An action oriented country had, within limits, an action-oriented government, one that additionally won wars and built interstate highway systems.

The government of Barack Obama, by and large, is designed more to prevent people from doing things or to furnish entitlements than to carry out goals in its own right.  That shift was the result of larding the state with endless regulatory agencies designed to fulfill an agenda of inaction at best and retrocession at worst.  To get positive things done, you turned to the military, private contractors or both.  Such a state of affairs is a major reason for the antipathy the government has these days, even by those who benefit the most from its largesse.

When Obama managed to get his BFD called the Affordable Care Act, he needed a government that could get things done.  But he didn’t have that.  In a sense he and the entire American left were hoisted by their own petard; the result they’re wrestling with was inevitable.  How that plays out—and how Barack Obama will be seen by those who will look at this Republic in the rear view mirror—remains to be seen, but the prospects are unappetizing.

As for me, the year after Jack Kennedy’s assassination we left for Palm Beach and a social system with its own challenges.  Eight years after that I left the Episcopal Church in the rear view mirror and began my “Tiber swim” at the same Catholic parish where Jack Kennedy fulfilled his obligation to take part in the sacred mysteries, and sat behind a bronze plaque commemorating same.  That was an sign that, for me and others, one of the pillars of WASP life, the Main Line church, was crumbling.  More crumbling pillars were to come.  In that respect Jack Kennedy’s legacy—or more properly his father’s—was fulfilled, but sad to say they and those who have come in their wake forgot that, if you arrange another’s Gotterdammerung, don’t forget to leave Valhalla before you torch it.

4 thoughts on “Camelot Not Quite: My Reflections on JFK, Fifty Years After”

  1. And yet, one of the greatest women of the church, then, or at any time, was Hilda of Whitby. Don’t forget, Gildas had an axe to grind…

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