The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys

Why JFK has more in common with Elvis than with FDR

WITH all the media coverage occasioned by the thirtieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, Joe McGinniss's biography of Edward Kennedy, The Last Brother, rather got lost. The brief controversy over McGinniss's methods, in turn, obscured a larger milestone: along with the flood of docudramas about the first brother, The Last Brother was yet another step in the transformation of the Kennedys from largely conventional political figures into pop-culture deities from the world of entertainment—the cultural equivalents, perhaps, of Elvis Presley or the Jacksons. It should be no surprise that popular biography has reflected this conversion, or that the change parallels the way politics has come to be viewed in the years since the Kennedys hit the scene. Neither is it a coincidence that the Kennedy family, through its infatuation with Hollywood, was instrumental in the conversion. "All history is gossip," President Kennedy used to say, which may or may not have been accurate then, but— owing to the changes he and his family helped accelerate—is somewhat more accurate today. "So the rumors are true?" asks a character in The Player, a 1992 film about Hollywood. "Rumors are always true. You know that," another answers. John Kennedy, Joe McGinniss, and millions of Americans wouldn't have put it any other way.

Of course, traditional political biographies are still being published about the Kennedys: witness President Kennedy: Profile of Power, Richard Reeves's recent account of the JFK presidency. But just as the current political doings of the Kennedys are frequently dwarfed in the popular press by news of the latest party, drinking scandal, or date for John Junior, so in recent times have traditional books about the Kennedys been overshadowed by such gossipy volumes as the McGinniss work; Richard Burke's tell-all about Edward Kennedy, The Senator; Peter Collier and David Horowitz's The Kennedys: An American Drama; and even (though they're less gossipy) Nigel Hamilton's JFK: Reckless Youth and Thomas Reeves's A Question of Character. Because of the current cultural obsession with inner life, biography now tends to stray into the personal more than it once did. Still, the Kennedy family isn't written about the way that Harry Truman, or Ronald Reagan, or Martin Luther King Jr. is. The Kennedys are different from you and me and them, and not simply because they have more money.

To be sure, the Kennedys have had—and continue to have—a political impact on the nation. To many, they have embodied an ideal of public service. But politics hasn't been this family's calling card in the mass culture for some time. Even in the aggregate the Kennedys have never had the political impact of Martin Luther King Jr., FDR, or even Reagan. If President Kennedy is still revered today, it's more because of his glamorous style and because he died young than for any specific accomplishments. Robert Kennedy is identified with a liberal agenda that still inspires many, but he came late in life to that cause. What's more, at the time his only national candidacy was cut tragically short, it was hardly clear that he would win the election, or even that he could beat out Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination. In the days before his death Kennedy lost to Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 Oregon presidential primary, and barely won the key California primary a week later. Edward Kennedy's 1980 attempt at national office failed; he lost most of the important primaries in his own party to an unpopular President. That, of course, doesn't tarnish his considerable record over the past three decades as one of the few effective spokesmen left for liberalism. But outside Massachusetts that status is hardly what makes him, or his relatives, the celebrities they have become.

The Kennedys have really become entertainment superstars. Consider some of the evidence: Like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, they attract a kind of tabloid journalism and biography which focuses even more than usual on scandal and unsavory personal tidbits. The Palm Beach rape case, after all, was a Hollywood trial, not a Washington one, and the model for most of these recent Kennedy books is not Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days but Albert Goldman's Elvis. The screaming crowds that engulfed Robert Kennedy in 1968 -- tearing at his clothes and stealing his cuff links— were not unlike those that followed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. If several people were killed trying to see Robert Kennedy's funeral train, the analogy may be as much to the reaction to Rudolph Valentino's death or to what happened in 1979 at a Who concert as it is to the funeral procession for Abraham Lincoln.

This is a family identified by first names in the familiar Hollywood style -- Jack, Jackie, Bobby, Ethel, Teddy—just as we once knew Elvis, Marilyn, and Ringo, but certainly not as we have known Franklin, Ronald, or even Bill. The Kennedy men are well known for their rather public life of wine, women, and song (or its modern equivalent), an existence that approximates life on the road for a rock star. Even in marriage the family reveals a kind of split personality about what it has become. Some Kennedys have gone into politics and married other people in that profession, but the two best-known current family alliances are Maria Shriver's marriage to the box-office king Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kennedy Jr.'s relationship with the actress Daryl Hannah. (Entertainment in-law Peter Lawford was a preview of things to come.)

DEFINING the Kennedys as an entertainment family does explain some anomalies. There is only a weak tradition of political families in this country; the strong antipathy to royalism explains why. But there is an enduring convention of entertainment families who are often treated by the press and public like royalty, their names including Booth, Barrymore, Fairbanks, Bridges, Sheen, Douglas, Belushi, Baldwin, Garland and Minnelli—the list goes on. There has also been a pattern of "brother acts" in vaudeville, and particularly in rock and country music— the Everly Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, the Jacksons, the Osmonds, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Allman Brothers, the Mills Brothers, the Statler Brothers, the Ames Brothers, even New Kids on the Block.

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Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. More

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. He is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and both the Boston Globe, where he was an op-ed columnist and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a world sports columnist.

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