On Monday November 11 and Tuesday November 12, PBS’s American Experience series aired a two-part documentary on John F. Kennedy titled simply, “JFK.” It was apparently meant to help mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. What I’m interested in is not re-hashing the well-worn material on Kennedy’s life, presidency and assassination, but rather thinking about the overall effect he and his public persona had on American culture. So though I was deeply moved—especially by the final episode in this 4-hour documentary, where the most beautiful couple in American presidential history debark from their gleaming plane in Dallas and lead their motorcade through jam-packed Dallas streets filled with adoring well-wishers as a simple drone music builds in the background to the horror we know and fear is coming but don’t see; and then watch that noble cortege with its black horses moving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington—it is, I think, important to step back a bit and gauge what has been wrought. In brief, I believe that JFK’s most enduring contribution to American political life was not any one policy or legislative achievement (he had almost none), but his grasp of the importance of images, particularly television images, and how those images played in public, not least in this documentary itself.
Especially as he matured, JFK was perfectly equipped to project an image. He was movie-star handsome, and when paired with his equally classic wife Jacqueline, almost royal in his impact. And the media loved him. It is a commonplace to note that he won the presidency based on his TV debate performance with a haggard looking Richard Nixon. After that, national magazines featured his and Jackie’s beautiful faces almost monthly. When the two children, John-John and Caroline came along, they only added charm and warmth to the family picture, both of them outfitted in classic English clothes and stylish haircuts to make them almost icons of American childhood. When Caroline hugged her father or leaned a tired head on his shoulder, or John-John peered out from beneath his presidential desk, it was enough to make you weep. Indeed, when John-John saluted his father’s funeral cortege, all America did weep.
To its credit, the documentary allows us to see, or at least hear, that not all was as it seemed. For one, Kennedy suffered from debilitating diseases (Addison’s Disease, which he denied in his campaign for the presidency) and back problems throughout his life, sometimes to the point where he could barely stand. It was probably only his father’s wealth that allowed him to get the best treatment possible (including multiple daily injections of pain killers and amphetamines), usually outside the public eye, to allow him to continue, and, most of the time, fool the world into seeing him as the epitome of youthful energy. The same is true about the idyllic family, with mutually loving parents, that was projected. JFK was a notorious womanizer and we are told that it didn’t stop with marriage. He carried on when in the White House, on trips, and everywhere else he could. Marilyn Monroe was only the most famous of his sexual partners. But in public, he always managed to maintain that ease and charm to which he’d been both bred and trained, again thanks to his father’s almost endless supply of money. As to the source of that fortune, the documentary is silent about that, but earlier investigations have suggested that old Joseph Kennedy got his start either in bootlegging in the 20s, or insider trading on the stock-market thereafter, or both. By the time Jack comes along, though, the money has pretty much been laundered and put into more acceptable income-generating sources (Joe bought the Merchandise Mart in Chicago for a song in 1945, where his real fortune was made) and all we see are American mandarins whose position is tainted, if only slightly, by their Roman Catholicism.
Nonetheless, though he never got major legislation through the southern-dominated Congress, John F. Kennedy did have the courage to stand firm against all of his major advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was truly his historic moment—when the world really could have slipped into nuclear Armageddon. Had it not been for JFK’s cool under fire, fending off such war-mongers as General Curtis LeMay who wanted to bomb the hell out of Cuba as usual, it well might have. Of course, it could also be argued that the crisis arose from America’s arrogance and determination to overwhelm the Soviet Union with nuclear might in the first place, but that’s another story. What the documentary does tell us is that a secret back-channel communication from JFK to Russian premier Khrushchev brought the two nations back from the brink. Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s promise to (secretly so as to avoid antagonizing the congressional hawks) remove the U.S. missiles that had recently been placed in Turkey. As it turns out, Kennedy never did honor that promise. It also seems to be the case that a Russian submarine commander, under attack from American depth charges, thought the war had begun and was about to launch his missiles—refraining only at the last minute. So it was really the Russians, as much as JFK, who exhibited prudence and humanity when faced with Armageddon. What Kennedy did, though, was to promote the story not of his cool head under fire, not of his reluctance to murder 300 million people in a nuclear exchange to save face, but his ability to face down the Russian leader and force him to remove his missiles from “our” hemisphere. In other words, JFK remained the master of image, and of public relations. And as always, it worked. His popularity soared, his presidency was secured, and he was well on his way to a second term. With his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall, the image of the leader with the proper ‘cojones’ assumed global proportions.
Finally, Kennedy’s stance on the civil rights movement, then reaching combustible levels in Alabama, is the other legacy that endures. The documentary is fairly honest about that, making it clear that Kennedy felt harried by a growing movement that continually threatened to usurp his energy and divert it from what he saw as the major international crisis— containing communism (JFK really was a ‘cold warrior’ determined to thwart communist expansion). He bridled at the ‘impatience’ of black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the young radicals who refused to buckle beneath the threat of snarling dogs and fire hoses. And though the documentary inexplicably leaves it out, he also expressed both fear and annoyance when King insisted on going through with the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Left out or not, it was probably that event which finally pushed him to make his courageous speech introducing the Civil Rights Act to the nation. As a result, Kennedy finally emerged from his cautious attitude towards the civil rights movement and made inevitable the legislative promise that even Lyndon Johnson could not ignore, and was finally able to fulfill in 1964—after JFK was killed. Most commentators have opined that Kennedy himself would never have been able to get the bill through a southern-dominated Congress. They are probably right. Unlike pubic opinion, Congress is not fully amenable to image. Particularly where race is concerned, it must be cajoled and pushed and browbeaten and bribed, and Johnson, unlike Kennedy, was the master of these tactics.
Still, it was JFK who put civil rights on the agenda. It was also JFK who put a nuclear arms reduction treaty on the agenda. So we must credit him for that.
His lasting achievement, however (if we can call it an achievement, since the effects are not always and everywhere positive), was in the arena of image. Politics has never been the same since John F. Kennedy. His looks and his style, including the epitome of style embodied by Jackie and the children, especially as they were captured by both television and still camera, transformed politics. One can hardly find a politician these days who does not somehow “look” like JFK—with the glaring exception of Lyndon Johnson, who made his political bones the old way, and whose looks became his Achilles heel when Vietnam protests exploded on his watch. More than that, perhaps, is the use of private money to mount campaigns outside the normal party apparatus. JFK was the first to use the primary system (and his father’s unlimited money) to build so much momentum that he overwhelmed the party bosses’ normal way of conducting a convention. The procedure for choosing a presidential candidate has never looked back. And perhaps the most prominent example of his pre-eminence in the arena of image is the documentary, JFK, itself. Though I tried to resist, though I tried to remember how it was back in 1960 and during the momentous events of his presidency, and though I tried to inure myself to the charm of that royal family cavorting on Hyannisport and exhibiting that noble ease that only comes with great wealth and privilege, I was unable to resist finally. So that when that insistent music accompanied the open car as it made its way through the Dallas streets, I was filled with dread. My president, my nation, my family almost, was about to be gunned down. Was gunned down. And as my eyes filled with tears watching once again that funeral cortege, I remembered where I was when I first heard that staggering news on the radio—our president has been shot, America has been shot—and then watched transfixed for days in front of a TV set with an entire nation as the rest of that unforgettable drama unfolded.
Those images will never leave those of us who saw them. The images of this president, of the nation itself, of all of us looking inward, were thereby transformed. Innocence. All America seemed, in retrospect, innocent; as innocent as John-John, in spite of what we knew. And now, with murder, two murders on our screens, innocence had left, never to return; in its place dark corridors with hatted gunmen and subterfuge and back-room deals and the gritty often dirty business of governing. That’s what this documentary, with its indelible images of that innocence, left me with. And the wonder about how such images implant themselves, and whether we’re better for them or worse, whether they’re authentic or not, and whether this nation is better for having been treated to those JFK images, or not.