Typical Australian newspapers’ op-ed pages are not things that most people wish to censure frequently. After all, our parents taught us that it was impolite to mock slow-witted children.
But sometimes their usual blend of semi-literacy, post-Christian sanctimony, and idées reçues (presumably pronounced, by beneficiaries of Whitlamite education, “eyedeez reckooz”) combusts with so dramatic an effect as to create a whole new chemical compound of journalistic squalor.
So it was in the May 30 Sunday Age, when no fewer than three letter-writers attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the repute of John F. Kennedy. At least, three letter-writers’ names were given; the prevailing monomania suggested one individual using three pseudonyms.
This lovefest’s immediate trigger was a mildly sardonic article on May 23 by feature-writer Chris Beck, wondering why Melbourne’s city fathers had incurred the expense of adorning the Treasury Gardens with a Kennedy monument when JFK’s importance to Australian politics was, ahem, unclear.
Even this gentle ribbing of Saint Jack was too much for Sunday-Age-reading JFK groupies to tolerate in silence. From “Louis Coutts, East Melbourne”:
“If Chris Beck had lived through the pre-Kennedy years of the Cold War, with its environment of sabre-rattling and the constant warning that war with Russia was inevitable (encouraged by McCarthyism [sic] hysteria), he would have experienced the enormous relief when a young, forward-looking, intelligent, risk-taking politician voiced the concerns of ordinary people such as myself.
“What historians will never record about Kennedy was the manner in which he gave hope to a world that had so long lived in an atmosphere of doom generated by politicians of another era. He challenged the legitimacy of convention, in America and abroad, by questioning the inequitable treatment of black Americans . . .”
And so on, yada yada yada. (At least this letter, unlike the other two, actually allowed a tiny doubt regarding JFK’s legacy; its author admitted that “he never achieved much in changing laws or signing treaties.”)
Next, a harrumph signed “Beverley Broadbent, East St Kilda”: “Beck probably wasn’t around when John F. Kennedy was alive and inspiring the whole Western world with a sense of optimism and energy, and the belief that a better future was possible.” (So inhabiting a particular age group is a prerequisite for reproaching past world leaders! Does this mean that all rebukes of Hitler by persons born after 1945 are invalid? That only persons born earlier than 1584 may condemn Ivan the Terrible? Apparently yes.)
Finally, the words of “Peter McCrossin, Richmond”: “Beck’s remarks appear to reflect ignorance of both the time of the JFK presidency and the leadership qualities he displayed. I commend Bruce Grant’s A Furious Hunger. Grant’s view is that ‘the assassination of President Kennedy was ‘an event of almost unbearable pathos and tragedy’ that ‘comes back to haunt us at unguarded moments’.”
We see isolated here, as if on three microscopic slides, everything that makes so much antipodean commentary absurd: the strident self-righteousness; the lack of indications that the authors have ever attempted serious research; above all, the appeals to baby-boomers’ feelings, without the faintest suggestion of hard thought.
Given these epistles’ manic enthusiasm, a stiff dose of historiographical lithium carbonate is overdue.
First, the extreme dubiety of JFK having become president at all. The 1960 presidential election was America’s closest between 1876 and 2000.
Though Kennedy won the Electoral College vote comfortably enough – 303 college votes to Richard Nixon’s 219 – the winning popular vote margin amounted to only 113,000, from a total of 68 million.
The two crucial states in deciding Kennedy’s fortunes were Texas and Illinois, where, respectively, “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson and Richard Daley Snr controlled the Democratic Party machines.
Johnson’s main coup before 1960 had been to acquire a Senate seat in 1948 through the judicious use of graveyards’ inhabitants in augmenting electoral rolls. (When trouble for LBJ threatened, lists of new Democratic voters would magically appear in alphabetical order, and with the same pen used throughout.)
Daley, Chicago’s mayor since 1955, had recently seen off the ambitions of Illinois state attorney, Benjamin Adamowski, by a mere 25,000 votes.
Once the inconclusiveness of 1960’s contest became known, Adamowski publicly announced: “Daley has stolen the White House”. Nixon forever believed the same thing. (At first he wished to challenge the outcome, until Eisenhower characteristically dissuaded him.)
A few half-hearted Kennedy-philes – such as David Greenberg in Slate on October 16, 2000 – have attempted to impugn Nixon’s and Adamowski’s conclusion. In doing this, they must resort to explanations so at variance with the known facts as to border on the comic: namely, that LBJ and Daley played no role in the result; and that Mafiosi like Sam Giancana played no role in the result either.
In other words, Kennedy’s defenders ask us to believe that the shrewdest number-crunchers in the entire Democratic Party, not to mention the Mafia’s top brass, were a bunch of incompetents!
Even quondam JFK defenders Anthony Summers (author of The Arrogance of Power) and Seymour Hersh (The Dark Side of Camelot), who regard Nixon as more or less the Creature from the Black Lagoon, have abandoned the delusion of 1960’s poll as a fair fight.
So many girls, so little time
Difficult as it may be to believe (and unthinkable as it clearly is for Sunday Age letter-writers), JFK had the morals of a polecat on Viagra. Even Clinton never tried to lie his way out of a secret marriage. JFK tried, and succeeded. Hersh’s book mentions JFK’s Florida wedding in 1947.
Far from being a calumnious invention of the late 1990s, the Florida event scored wide publicity in Kennedy’s lifetime; anti-JFK flyers circulating in Texas during Kennedy’s last days on earth mentioned it.
Former Kennedy operative Charles Spalding confirmed it, describing it somewhat oddly as a “childish scamp”. In 1947 the “childish” JFK turned thirty. That J. Edgar Hoover accepted the Kennedy clan’s denials of the first marriage’s very existence is a worse indictment of FBI standards during Hoover’s later years than any complaints of “McCarthyism” which Sunday Age buyers would rather lament.
(And sorry to be a party-pooper yet again, but Joe McCarthy’s outbursts – however inelegant – about Soviet moles running America’s State Department were justified. Except where McCarthy had actually undercounted Stalinist spooks. Consult the writings of Arthur Herman, Nicholas von Hoffman, Ann Coulter, Harvey Klehr, etc., etc., etc. As this consultation entails learning to read, most arts graduates from Australian universities may well find it untenable.)
Of Kennedy’s later bedroom antics, there seems to have been, until the bullets in Dallas, no end. No need to detail them anew; Hersh has already spelt them out in his biography, as have Thomas Reeves and Nigel Hamilton in theirs. But even in this short survey, the JFK mania for intellectual swindling (not a single public utterance of his, whether written or spoken, can be plausibly attributed to him) must be briefly noted.
High office’s demands had no connection with it. He was already getting away with it, or rather, his ambassador father got away with it on his behalf, when golden boy JFK purportedly wrote the pamphlet Why England Slept.
A decade on, brother Ted cheated in his college exams, drawing from this heroic achievement the prescient conclusion that Chappaquiddick would also be forgiven him.
Ah yes, dear old JFK the Cold Warrior. Whenever two or three Kennedyphiles are gathered together, and the hopelessness of defending JFK the man becomes manifest, some voice will pipe up: “But at least he was anti-Communist.” Really?
Tell that to Norman Thomas, the veteran socialist who had long lost his occasional illusions about Moscow’s slave empire. Thomas summarised Kennedy in one stinging sentence: “The liberals like his rhetoric and the conservatives like his inaction.”
Tell that to Moïse Tshombe, the anti-Communist Congolese leader foolish enough to suppose that JFK, when promising to “bear any burden” in freedom’s cause, meant it. (In 1956 Tshombe’s Hungarian counterparts had been similarly sanguine about America; at least Tshombe, unlike lots of those counterparts, escaped the hangman’s rope.)
Tell that to those who witnessed, during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s covert expression of willingness to give up US missile bases in Turkey. (That this crisis did not leave us all glowing in the dark had nothing to do with JFK’s “leadership”, and everything to do with Khrushchev being a common-or-garden thug, instead of a maniac like the aged Stalin or a ham-actor like Castro.)
Tell that to the unfortunate Cuban exiles who the preceding year had perished in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a fiasco avoidable but for JFK’s belief in his own invincibility. (True, other American leaders had talked pro-Castro rubbish before the Bay of Pigs. Eisenhower had, at first, interpreted Castro as a sort of bearded George Washington. By 1961 he knew better.)
With Camelot, the dying words of Rabelais (a fitting source for matters Kennedyish) are appropriate: “Ring down the curtain: the farce is over.” Or as historian Robert L. Kocher put it, alluding to a 1988 witticism by former vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen: “I remember John Kennedy, and believe me, John Kennedy was no John Kennedy.”
- R.J. Stove