Flashbacks November 2008

The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys

Articles from the Atlantic archives speculate on the lives and deaths of the legendary American family.
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Although it has been forty-five years since John F. Kennedy’s death, America’s collective fascination with his life has not diminished. The mystery surrounding his assassination continually inspires Web sites, conferences, and films such as Interview With the Assassin, a mock documentary with a self-proclaimed second gunman as its focus. In a 2007 Atlantic piece, Thomas Mallon describes his own fixation on the assassination, which drew him to an annual conspiracy theorists’ conference called “November in Dallas.” By that time, Mallon’s preoccupation had grown so intense that he was struck with debilitating neck and shoulder pain and had to miss several conference sessions. “I was prescribed muscle relaxants,” he recalls, “and later—back in my hotel-room bed, luxuriating in their side effects—I wondered how this had happened to me.”

Along with an unhealthy obsession on the facts of Kennedy’s death, Americans remain interested in unearthing previously unknown details about his life. In this vein, Robert Dallek’s article in the December 2002 Atlantic, “The Medical Ordeals of JFK,” took a look at Kennedy’s previously sealed medical records and offered new insight into the surprisingly fragile state of his health. “Not only the extent of Kennedy’s medical problems” Dallek wrote, “but the lengths to which he and his family went to conceal them were significant.” He detailed Kennedy’s ailments, which included colitis, osteoporosis, Addison’s disease, and chronic urinary-tract infections, and describes the various ways in which Kennedy hid those ailments from public view. These revelations quickly inspired discussion in print and on television, radio, and the Internet, testifying to this country’s ongoing preoccupation with all things Kennedy.

That preoccupation extends, of course, far beyond JFK to the rest of his family. A recent example is the exhibit of Jackie Kennedy’s clothing that traveled last year from the JFK Library and Museum in Boston to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In “Costumes From Camelot” (December 2001 Atlantic), Caitlin Flanagan reviewed this traveling exhibit and its accompanying catalogue. Although aware that the Kennedy family is far from perfect—“For the cynical, the entire Kennedy enterprise is a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet of hypocrisy and untrammeled personal ambition"—she nevertheless admitted that she is not immune to the star-struck adulation that the family tends to inspire:

When it comes to looking at pictures of the Kennedys, I fall into a kind of stupor, and everything I know about the bad marriage and the political misdeeds ... flies out of my head, the way the times table used to the moment the test paper was set down on my desk.... It is impossible for me to look at these pictures and not impose on them the exact sort of narrative that inspired the family to make themselves so available to photographers in the first place.

It is this irresistible allure of the Kennedy family that Steven Stark explored in “The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys” (January 1994 Atlantic). The Kennedys, Stark explained, were the first political family whose image was as strongly embedded in the public consciousness as that of Hollywood stars. Even the family’s unusual number of untimely deaths, he suggested—as with many movie and music stars—only served to magnify the legend.

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.

The public’s sense of familiarity and personal investment with the Kennedy family, Stark argued, has been formed in part by watching the family weather tragedy after tragedy and by following the ubiquitous tabloid coverage of their lives. The Kennedys, he pointed out, are commonly referred to by their first names:

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.

This phenomenon has rippled out to the current generation of Kennedys, with JFK Jr. inheriting this life of public scrutiny. In “Playing Nick Carraway” (June 2002 Atlantic) Thomas Mallon reviewed American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr., a book by George magazine’s executive editor, Richard Blow. Mallon criticized Blow for hypocrisy and a lack of discretion, pointing out that although Blow self-righteously praised his own restraint in the media furor that followed JFK Jr.’s death, as soon as George folded Blow wrote at great length about JFK Jr. and things that went on behind closed doors. Mallon pointed out that despite Blow’s attempts to portray himself as impervious to the lure of fame, his own words give him away:

Recollecting a bit of touch football played during a winter snowfall, he writes, “Romping like a kid, I forgot that I was throwing a football around the streets of Manhattan with John F. Kennedy Jr., substituting in a ritual he usually performed with his famous family.” This is not, of course, what Blow “forgot”; it’s what he most remembers. “I would respect and protect John,” he recalls thinking in early 1996. “I would do my utmost to stand by him. But I would not be seduced by him.” Well, we’ll be the judge of that.

Moreover, although George magazine was purportedly about contemporary political culture, Mallon argues that it was such a mediocre publication—(“A typical issue of George couldn’t sustain the reader’s attention for a forty-minute shuttle flight between New York and Washington”)—that in truth it became more about JFK Jr.’s celebrity.

There was, Blow writes, “one question none of us wanted to ask: Were readers buying George because they liked the magazine or to get a glimpse of John?” Let me answer that question: to get a glimpse of John.

It is easy, of course, to become so distracted by the Kennedy legend that one loses sight of who John F. Kennedy Sr. really was and what he stood for. An article Kennedy wrote during his first year in the Senate, “New England and the South: The Struggle for Industry” (January 1954 Atlantic) reveals aspects of Kennedy’s persona that are sometimes lost in the Hollywood-style myths. In it, Kennedy’s thoughtful and rigorous arguments show Kennedy to be a policy-maker genuinely concerned with social justice and economic vitality. The article, which explored the issue of industry migrating from New England to the South, did not simply regard the phenomenon as a matter of competition between regions. Rather, he analyzed the issue from several angles and expressed concern about the reasons for which the migration was occurring. It was clear to him that a number of companies were moving south “for causes other than normal competition and natural advantages.” There was less unionization among southern workers, he pointed out, so many companies were moving there in hopes of exploiting cheap labor. Although he hoped for continued prosperity for southern industries, he did not wish them to thrive on unfair practices, and he advocated countrywide standards for worker benefits and compensation:

The minimum wage, Walsh-Healey, Taft-Hartley, unemployment compensation, and social security laws must be improved to prevent the use of sub-standard wages, anti-union policies, and inadequate social benefits as lures to industrial migration.

Further evidence of Kennedy’s social vision lies in his vested interest in the arts. Both he and Jackie Kennedy are remembered for emphasizing the importance of culture in public life, and for bringing artists of all types to visit and perform at the White House. An avid admirer of Robert Frost, Kennedy asked the poet to give a reading at his inauguration. In a reciprocal gesture, several months after Frost’s death (less than a month before his own assassination), Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in Frost’s honor. In it, he argued that the role of the artist as a critic and commentator is as important as that of the politician. (The speech was reprinted in the February 1964 Atlantic.)

The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when the questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.

He ended the speech with a focus on a grand future he envisioned for his country:

I look forward to a great future for America — a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe, not only for democracy and diversity, but also for personal distinction.

“A nation reveals itself,” he proclaimed, “not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” Little did he suspect that in a few short weeks he, too, would be a man to be honored and remembered.

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