As we approach the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I’m reminded that our current president is hardly the first to be almost wholly media-created. Indeed, for the past few weeks, I’ve found it near-impossible to avoid the myriad newsstands and storefronts sporting some opportunistic photo specials slathered in the plastic splendor of Camelot.
What is it about us Americans? We endure an unlikely war of independence. Craft a Constitution that is the bedrock of earth’s greatest experiment in liberty and self-governance. Somehow manage to emerge from a bloodbath between the states with our republic intact. And then almost single-handedly turn the tide in not one, but two cataclysmic world wars. Plus, did I mention the Great Depression? Yeah we got through that one too.
And yet, for all this, there remains something in the American character that yearns for royalty, even now, over two hundred years after we shook off its malevolent yoke.
Of course, this phenomenon is no longer limited just to hollow-suit White House occupants. Indeed, every single day we are saturated in the exploits of pop figures whose names and habits are too vile for me to write without becoming nauseous. This all courtesy of a press that has long fancied itself “the pin-prick to power” but in demeanor and action far more closely resemble the court poets of the Bolsheviks.
Which brings me back to Jack Kennedy. Yes, we see the playful pictures of the handsome, crusading president: boating with Jackie, playing with kids, cutting up with Bobby, conferring soberly with his father. But what does this all amount to? Is it just that he looked so damn good doing it? Did not more capable men often do these things?
Richard Nixon, for all his faults, was a far better statesman. Technically speaking, LBJ was far more impactful legislatively. Ronald Reagan faced down Soviet brinksmanship with a force and finesse Kennedy couldn’t begin to muster.
But these men were not young and photogenic. They did not beguile a press that would swoon in the presence of Lucifer himself if he flashed them a smile, showed a little leg, and wailed on an electric guitar.
Down to his essence, what was John F. Kennedy beneath the tinsel and cloying perfume? Did he privately agonize over his serial-cheating on Jackie? Were his dreams haunted by Cuban rebels, condemned to fiery death by his and the CIA’s inability to put on their big-boy pants? Did it ever bother or even occur to him that, without his father’s mob connections, he never would have come within sniffing distance of the presidency?
It is nothing less than a mortal threat to our republic when we lionize our leaders in the absence of accomplishment, when we allow a press long past its shelf life to dazzle us with pictures and facile slogans. We literally can’t afford it anymore.
So on this 50th anniversary of a president’s undeserved and unjust death, let me just say that I wish he were still with us, so we could call him on it all, so he could face a more balanced history, and so we could tell him that in the final analysis, he was a mixed bag, a deeply-flawed figure whose live act never quite lived up to the presentation.