On the day of John F. Kennedy‘s inauguration (January 20, 1961), the Northeast was paralyzed beneath 1-2 feet of snow. The president’s speech was carried on the heels of fierce winds and biting cold. Most people were relatively more optimistic in those days (oftentimes against their better judgment) and somewhat more trustful of government; if anything, they were more or less respectful (however reluctantly) towards the Office of President of the United States. The beneficent visions and/ or illusions of the Kennedy era would become frozen amid the dim light of a harsher reality on November 22, 1963 and beyond. A re-imagined Camelot became a peculiarly eternal, because somehow enthusiastic, dream of yesteryear for at least two generations of Americans.
In 1961, America was fighting the Cold War: that uncertain battleground where a clouded alignment of real, imagined or contrived threats suspended reason and modified talk. Both America and Russia were acquiring stockpiles of nuclear weapons with the potential to blow the world up twenty times over. The Soviet Union’s breakthroughs in space exploration (or first-strike capability), with Sputnik and manned-orbital flight, increased the stakes.
While America’s economy had been declining for two years, Russia’s had been growing and causing us political embarrassment. The Soviet Union was also gaining increased strength with more countries (especially former Asian and African colonies) looking to it for leadership and alliance…with Cuba in the lead. The United States, for the first time since 1812, felt vulnerable to invasion.
So, it was not surprising that the new President would give an inaugural speech that was essentially a cold war battle cry. Only two words in Kennedy’s speech even touched on domestic affairs. Those words were “at home,” and they were added by Kennedy and his gifted speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, at the very last minute. NY Times
Because Kennedy was relatively young and dynamic-looking (actually, he was in extremely poor health), his untimely death leaves an eternal “What If?” imprinted on history and in the imagination. The character and charisma he (and certainly his wife Jackie) exuded, more than the handful of goals that JFK achieved, played a crucial part in JFK’s presidency and served as a dazzling smokescreen to his administration’s less appealing side. Yet, even more than Lincoln or FDR, Kennedy stood as the role model for aspiring political leaders. (To paraphrase critic Greil Marcus: JFK’s reputation is too much to live up to and too much to escape.) The fact that he and especially his brother, Robert, would be seen as politically conservative by today’s standards is lost in the myth and romance of JFK’s legacy.
While it’s often forgotten that the well-publicized dreams and presumed ambitions of Kennedy were, in fact, carried out by his successor Lyndon Johnson (his Great Society, ironically, a primary factor that led to his downfall), JFK’s martyrdom earned him the glory. No one remembers whether or not Kennedy balanced the budget (at best, it was stabilized) or that he was often reluctant to take a direct stand on civil rights issues. Whether or not the war in Vietnam would have escalated if he had lived (Kennedy often acceded to war hawks) is still a matter of speculation. Indeed, the overall importance of his presidency is debatable. Unfortunately, he’s best remembered as being the tragic victim of an assassination that ranks as one of the most perplexing events in world history.
At his inauguration, JFK’s main worry was, of all things, in being upstaged by Robert Frost who was to deliver “The Gift Outright,” a poem written by the great poet in tribute to Kennedy. While Frost, his poem, the blizzard that froze the Northeast 50 years ago, are barely remembered (if not totally forgotten), Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” would be forever remembered long after the words diminished in importance. Kennedy, like all supposed heroes, wasn’t really beloved for what he actually did or said but for what people believed he was; as it turned out, beyond the pomp and ceremony, he left much to be desired.
But I, along with many of my Baby Boom contemporaries, spent the past 50 years engaged in this psycho-therapeutic nostalgia; alas, I’ll most likely spend the remainder of my life engaged in it. I wish it were otherwise, but the 50-year-old list of presidential hacks and frauds helped to make this nostalgia terribly addictive. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to recover from such a lengthy period of political sentimentality, where a once and future yesteryear glimmers ceaselessly along a hopeful horizon of possibility.
- The JFK legacy: Camelot and conspiracies (capitolhillblue.com)
- JFK: the myth that will never die (telegraph.co.uk)
- Dennis: Dismantling the myth of JFK’s Camelot (vtdigger.org)
- The incomplete president (steveprestegard.com)