The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys

Jack, Jackie, Bobby—or is it Elvis, Marilyn, Ringo? The Kennedys have left the realm of politics to reign as entertainment superstars, at the intersection of Washington and Hollywood.

JFK campaigns at a Baltimore shopping center in the spring of 1960. (Associated Press)

“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 …

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 …

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 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 as 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 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 … 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.

Read the full article in the Atlantic archives.