John F. Kennedy, Ironist?

The title and tagline for this Fouad Ajami piece in the Wall Street Journal reads, “The Obama Spell Is Broken — Unlike this president, John Kennedy was an ironist who never fell for his own mystique.” In the body of the piece, Ajami writes:


We have had stylish presidents, none more so than JFK. But Kennedy was an ironist and never fell for his own mystique. Mr. Obama’s self-regard comes without irony—he himself now owns up to the “remoteness and detachment” of his governing style. We don’t have in this republic the technocratic model of the European states, where a bureaucratic elite disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will. Mr. Obama was smitten with his own specialness.

Ajami makes a number of good points about our aloof current president, but JFK and irony? Never really thought the two words were compatible. Kennedy was certainly cool — in both the 1950s sense of the word, and the way that McLuhan would go on to use it in the mid-1960s to describe performers and politicians who who were successful on television.

And of course, cool, in the Brando, James Dean, Steve McQueen, and early-60s Sinatra and Miles Davis sense of the word was and is artiface designed to mask a plethora of weaknesses. (See also: Draper, Don.) As the late Michael Kelly wrote in a superb essay about Sinatra:

Sinatra, as every obit observed, was the first true modern pop idol, inspiring in the 1940s the sort of mass adulation that was to become a familiar phenomenon in the ’50s and ’60s. One man, strolling onto the set at precisely the right moment in the youth of the Entertainment Age, made himself the prototype of the age’s essential figure: the iconic celebrity. The iconic celebrity is the result of the central confusion of the age, which is that people possessed of creative or artistic gifts are somehow teachers-role models-in matters of personal conduct. The iconic celebrity is idolized-and obsessively studied and massively imitated-not merely for the creation of art but for the creation of public self, for the confection of affect and biography that the artist projects onto the national screen.And what Frank Sinatra projected was: cool. And here is where the damage was done. Frank invented cool, and everyone followed Frank, and everything has been going to hell ever since.

In America, B.F., there was no cool. There was smart (as in the smart set), and urbane, and sophisticated, and fast and hip; but these things were not the same as cool. The pre-Frank hip guy, the model of aesthetic and moral superiority to which men aspired, is the American male of the 1930s and 1940s. He is Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or Casablanca or Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. He possesses an outward cynicism, but this is understood to be merely clothing; at his core, he is a square. He fights a lot, generally on the side of the underdog. He is willing to die for his beliefs, and his beliefs are, although he takes pains to hide it, old-fashioned. He believes in truth, justice, the American way, and love. He is on the side of the law, except when the law is crooked. He is not taken in by jingoism but he is himself a patriot; when there is a war, he goes to it. He is, after his fashion, a gentleman and, in a quite modern manner, a sexual egalitarian. He is forthright, contemptuous of dishonesty in all its forms, from posing to lying. He confronts his enemies openly and fairly, even if he might lose. He is honorable and virtuous, although he is properly suspicious of men who talk about honor and virtue. He may be world-weary, but he is not ironic.

The new cool man that Sinatra defined was a very different creature. Cool said the old values were for suckers. Cool was looking out for number one always. Cool didn’t get mad; it got even. Cool didn’t go to war: Saps went to war, and anyway, cool had no beliefs it was willing to die for. Cool never, ever, got in a fight it might lose; cool had friends who could take care of that sort of thing. Cool was a cad and boastful about it; in cool’s philosophy, the lady was always a tramp, and to be treated accordingly. Cool was not on the side of the law; cool made its own laws. Cool was not knowing but still essentially idealistic; cool was nihilistic. Cool was not virtuous; it reveled in vice. Before cool, being good was still hip; after cool, only being bad was.

Quite a legacy. On the other hand, he sure could sing.


A few years ago, James Lileks explored the implications of the catch phrase associated with the man who ushered cool into the movie industry:

One of the dumbest lines in cinema is one of the most famous: asked what he’s rebelling against, Marlin Brando’s character in the “The Wild Ones” says “Whaddya got?”Oh, I don’t know. The Pure Food Act, antibiotics, an industrial infrastructure that makes it possible for you to ride your bikes around, paved roads, a foreseeable successful conclusion to rural electrification, sewers, the ability to walk into any small café and order a Coke and know you won’t be squitting your guts out 12 hours later into a hole in the ground alive with squishy invertebrates. Little things. No wonder they fretted over the Juvenile Delinquents – they’d known not hard times nor war, and they acted as if they’d been born into the sixth circle of Hell. If pressed, JDs would respond – with their trademark mommie-took-my-rattle petulance that they were against the whole phony world, man, because there’s nothing the adolescent finds more contemptible than hypocrisy. Somehow they find the fact that their Old Man lied about Santa Claus – lied, man, stood there and lied with a big old smile on his big old face, dig it – is a piercing insight to the machinations of adulthood. Please don’t tell me they were alienated by the threat of nuclear war. So was my generation. We reacted with Disco and “Supertrain.”


Speaking of products from NBC, you can sort of chart the arrival of the Irony Age via the shows that rolled off the NBC late-night assembly lines: Carson? The very definition of McLuhan-style cool. The Belushi-Ackroyd-era Saturday Night Live? Satiric. Letterman? That’s when I would say the age of irony fully arrived in the military-industrial overculture complex, though it was first snuck in many years ago by comedians such as Mort Sahl.

But unlike Ajami, it’s not a word I would associate as a positive feature with any of our presidents.

Tell me if I’m wrong, and if so how, in the comments.


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