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.

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.