The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys

Why JFK has more in common with Elvis than with FDR

According to pop-culture folklore, several of these brother acts in rock have followed roughly the same pattern: The family is driven hard and molded by a difficult father. The first success is collective. Then one brother hits it big and becomes a superstar. Other family members ride the superstar's name and coattails to derivative careers of their own. Some brothers break down under the pressure, while other members of the family seem to invite trouble on a regular basis. So it has often seemed to go with the Kennedys.

As a kind of entertainment family the Kennedys were a prime force in blurring the distinctions between Hollywood and Washington—that blur being a condition characteristic of the age. As the critic Richard Schickel has observed in his book Intimate Strangers, they were certainly not the first to court the film industry or to recognize the consequences of the media era. Woodrow Wilson had D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation screened at the White House in 1915, and Douglas Fairbanks told Franklin Roosevelt when he was only assistant secretary of the Navy that he had the persona to succeed as an actor if he so chose.

But the Kennedys helped complete the revolution. As the biographers tell it, Father Joe "mingled" with Gloria Swanson and other stars, and his real business interest was in movie production, because he thought that was where the aristocracy of the next generation would be created. Judging from the biographies, much of the next Kennedy generation's childhood appears to have been one long photo op, culminating in John Kennedy's marriage to, of all things, an aristocratic photographer. If, in the media planning devised largely by Father Joe, JFK's 1960 race for the presidency was the first to resemble the packaging of a Hollywood blockbuster—the buildup, the bio, the promos, the publicity shots, the early buzz among influential critics, the reviews, the breakthrough performance (in debates), and, finally, the crowd reaction—that may have been no accident. "John F. Kennedy treated southern Ohio yesterday as Don Giovanni used to treat Seville," Murray Kempton wrote one day in a campaign dispatch striking both for its honesty and for the new political phenomenon it was describing. After all this, and an Administration that made the elevation of style over substance into both a zeitgeist and an ideology, not only the hanging out with Sinatra and Marilyn was inevitable; so was the eventual arrival of someone like Ronald Reagan.

Sadly, the assassinations also played a role in the conversion of the Kennedys into pop-culture phenomena. As Schickel has observed, dying young, if not violently, is something of an entertainment-industry phenomenon, as anyone familiar with the lives and deaths of Elvis, Marilyn, Valentino, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, John Belushi, Ritchie Valens, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison knows. It's not simply that an untimely death fulfills a romantic image that goes back to Byron and Keats, or that the premature passing of an entertainment figure tends to inspire a death cult in which numerous fans refuse to believe the star is dead. Dying young freezes the stars at their peak: like the promise of Hollywood itself, they remain forever young and beautiful—the perfect icons for the immortality that films and records purport to offer.

Death also to some extent frees journalists and biographers from having to stick to the truth, since the deceased don't press libel actions. In his book Dead Elvis, Greil Marcus described how Elvis had become a cultural obsession since his death, "a figure made of echoes, not of facts." The legend grew, he wrote, out of "art works, books, movies, dreams; sometimes more than anything cultural noise." So, too, has it gone for JFK, whose legacy has included not only the same literary tributes from the entourage, followed by the critical bios, but also the same creation of civic shrines, the same cultural buzz, the same attention paid to the surviving clan, the same questions raised about the cause of death, the same anniversary observances of the day he died, even the same odd tabloid sightings of the deceased which recall the Resurrection.

In a sense the image of all popular figures is a reflection of the public that follows them. But with a dead figure that reflective process grows exponentially—like the compounding effect of a series of mirrors; As a cultural symbol whose life can now be made into anything with impunity, Kennedy, like Presley, has become, in Marcus's words, "an anarchy of possibilities"—a reflection of the public's mass fears and aspirations and also a constant vehicle for discussing those sentiments. Thus Presley and the Kennedys have evolved into a collection of cultural deities—modern-day equivalents of the Greek gods, who were immortal while sharing the characteristics of the human beings who worshipped them.

That helps explain another unusual fact about the Kennedys: the more negative information the public is fed about the family, the more the legend just seems to grow. For that reason Palm Beach may have actually enhanced the family's status in the culture. Scandals become public spectacles—occasions for the masses to embroider the myth, the better to show how these superstars who are our gods flout the rules. Did anyone really lose respect for Mick Jagger when he got busted for possession?

Reviewers attacked McGinniss in part because what he wrote about the Kennedys was nothing more than gossip. But his real crime was that he merely recirculated stale gossip: who can make a new parable out of that? To a national audience now as intimately familiar with the grassy knoll, the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick, and the story of Jack and Marilyn as prior generations were with the stories of Icarus and of Samson and Delilah, McGinniss came off as something of a false prophet. If mass entertainment is now the civic religion in a country where government can never constitutionally fill that role, it should be no surprise that the path to immortality for a politician today is to become an entertainer in order to become a deity. "Elvis is King," they still write on street corners. Thirty years after his assassination JFK isn't far behind.

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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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