(Well, now that I have your attention…)
As Gene Healy writes at the Washington Examiner, it’s high time to “Bust the Myth of Camelot:”
Last week, the History Channel announced that Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes have signed on to play President Kennedy and his wife in an upcoming eight-hour miniseries, “The Kennedys.” Kinnear, best known for playing the dad in “Little Miss Sunshine,” seems an odd casting choice, but the real controversy surrounds the series’ producer, Joel Surnow.
Surnow is the creator of “24,” a pal of Rush Limbaugh’s, and one of the industry’s few prominent conservatives — which makes some liberals nervous about how he’ll handle a liberal icon.
Robert Greenwald, a left-wing documentarian who read an early version of the script, is leading the fight to discredit the project. His Web site, stopkennedysmears.com, features a 13-minute video with complaints about historical inaccuracies from, among others, former Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson, who helped burnish JFK’s unjustified reputation as a deep thinker by ghosting the Pulitzer-winning “Profiles in Courage.”
The screenwriter, Stephen Kronish, insists that he’s “not out to destroy the sacred cow” of the JFK presidency. Too bad: In an age when Americans still periodically swoon for imperial presidents, a little sacred-cow tipping would be a public service.
Greenwald carps that the script “just makes stuff up*, like the scene where Kennedy says he has to [have sex] every night or he’ll go crazy.”
Actually, what Kennedy said, to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.” (That’s from Richard Reeves’ highly regarded “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” p. 290, for anyone keeping score at home.) The scene’s not strictly accurate, but it’s hardly “made up.”
I haven’t read the script, but any sentient adult with an interest in history has known for years that Jack Kennedy had a sexual appetite to rival that of Motley Crue on world tour. Surnow’s hardly guilty of cheap moralism for pointing this out. Given that JFK’s activities periodically separated him from the Secret Service and the aide carrying the nuclear football — and that the president shared a mistress with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana — it’s hard to argue that no issues of public concern were involved.
More troubling were Kennedy’s routine abuses of power. His attorney general, brother Bobby, ordered wiretaps on New York Times and Newsweek reporters, along with various congressmen and steel executives who’d had the nerve to raise prices.
As Healy writes, “Nixon’s defenders had half a point when they complained that the sainted Jack had gotten away with the sort of abuses that brought Nixon’s own downfall.” That topic is explored in depth in Victor Lasky’s 1977 book, It Didn’t Start With Watergate, which is well worth seeking out via the used booksellers on Amazon.
The Camelot brand-name was something that Jackie Kennedy created after Kennedy’s death, as James Piereson wrote in the magnum-opus 2006 article “Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crack-Up” in Commentary that served as the central thesis of his book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution the following year:
Still another curiosity in the wake of the assassination was the transformation of the image of Kennedy himself. Though very much a characteristic liberal of his day, as we have seen, he came to be portrayed as a liberal hero of a very different sort—a leader who might have led the nation into a new age of peace, love, and understanding. Such a portrayal was encouraged by tributes and memorials inspired by friends and members of the Kennedy family as well as by the numerous books published after the assassination, particularly those by the presidential aides Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (A Thousand Days, 1965) and Theodore Sorensen (Kennedy, 1965).
The most potent element of this image-making was, of course, the now inescapable association of Kennedy with the legend of King Arthur and Camelot. This was the invention of Jacqueline Kennedy, who a week after her husband’s death pressed the idea upon the journalist Theodore H. White in the course of an interview that would serve as the basis for an article by him in Life magazine. White later regretted the role he had played in transmitting this romantic image to the public. “Quite inadvertently,” he wrote in his memoir, In Search of History (1978), “I was her instrument in labeling the myth.”
White’s short essay in Life contained a number of Mrs. Kennedy’s wistful remembrances, one of which was the President’s fondness for the title tune from the Lerner & Lowe Broadway hit, Camelot. His favorite lines, she told White, were these: “Don’t let it be forgot,/that once there was a spot,/for one brief shining moment/that was Camelot.” “There will be great Presidents again,” she continued, “but there will never be another Camelot again.” According to Mrs. Kennedy, her husband was an idealist who saw history as the work of heroes, and she wished to have his memory preserved in the form of appropriate symbols rather than in the dry and dusty books written by historians. Camelot was one such symbol; the eternal flame that she had placed on his grave was another.
Significantly, Mrs. Kennedy’s notion of Arthurian heroism derived not from Sir Thomas Mallory’s 15th-century classic Le Morte d’Arthur but from The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White (no relation to the journalist), on which the musical was based. White’s telling of the saga pokes fun at the pretensions of knighthood, pointedly criticizes militarism and nationalism, and portrays Arthur as a new kind of hero: an idealistic peacemaker seeking to tame the bellicose passions of his age. This may be one reason why Mrs. Kennedy’s effort to frame her husband’s legacy in this way was widely regarded as a distorted caricature of the real Kennedy and something he himself would have laughed at. Aides and associates reported that they had never heard Kennedy speak either about Camelot the musical or about its theme song. Some of Mrs. Kennedy’s friends said they had never even heard her speak about King Arthur or the play prior to the assassination.
According to Schlesinger, Mrs. Kennedy later thought she may have overdone this theme. Be that as it may, one has to give her credit for quick thinking in the midst of tragedy and grief—and also for injecting a set of ideas into the cultural atmosphere that would have large consequences. For not only did the Camelot reading of heroic public service cut liberalism off from its once-vigorous nationalist impulses but, if one accepted the image of a utopian Kennedy Camelot—and many did—then the best times were now in the past and would not soon be recovered. Life would go on, but America’s future could never match the magical chapter that had been brought to a premature end. Such thinking drew into question the no less canonical liberal assumption of steady historical progress, and compromised the liberal faith in the future.
Without intending to do so, Mrs. Kennedy had put forth an interpretation of her husband’s life and death that undercut mid-century liberalism at its core.
If you haven’t read it yet, click over to Commentary for more. I interviewed Piereson about his book shortly after its publication for TCS Daily. Peter Robinson’s interview with Piereson is very much worth watching, to place the mid-1960s into sharper perspective:
* As opposed to an earlier film with a Camelot-related title, of course.