In the tsunami of stories about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, no one yet has observed that JFK was one of the first and finest examples of manipulation of the mass media to elect a major candidate.
In 1956, Kennedy was a back-bench Senator known for little else than being the son of a rich man and the right-wing alternative to a moderate Tennessean as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. Then his family launched an incessant public relations program based on the question, “Can a Catholic be elected president?” It seemed as if every month some national magazine or prestigious newspaper was asking the question and answering mostly in the affirmative. In launching this PR campaign, the Kennedy family had one very large advantage: the family business was the largest advertiser in the mass media in the 1950s.
After the first debate with Richard Nixon, the Kennedy PR machine shifted into fifth gear to focus the media conversation not on what was said, but on how they said it and what they looked like. It was certainly the first time that issues—real or fabricated—took a back seat to style in discussing a major election. Likeability, that ineffable essence that the media later told us Bush II had and Al Gore did not, became a factor and the news media made sure we liked JFK a lot more than we did RMN. Of course, they had some help from Tricky Dick himself!
Fifty years after his assassination, the Kennedy legend is mostly built on myths, the most significant and mendacious of which is that he was a liberal or a progressive. Kennedy came from a dark past: His father sympathized with the Nazis. His younger brother was a lawyer for Joseph McCarthy.
As president, Kennedy tended to favor the right-wing. He called for decreasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations and for an increase in military spending. The two fiascos of his Administration—the Bay of Pigs invasion and the assassination of the head of the South Vietnamese government—were both examples of American imperialism and militarism. Both decisions came back to haunt our country for years, like the equally foolish decision to invade Iraq decades later.
In retrospect, Kennedy’s civil rights record was shabby. Yes he was hobbled by his inability to manage Congress, but reviews of his administration’s actions in such books as Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters suggest that Kennedy was always looking for an excuse to declare failure in Democratic attempts to pass civil rights legislation. Other books suggest that in finally passing civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, violence at the marches and riots in the inner cities moved Congress and the American people far more than did fulfilling the legacy of a martyred president.
Although Kennedy was born 30 years too early to be part of the Baby Boom generation, the fact that he was America’s youngest president when the Baby Boomers were reaching their teens did make it easy for Kennedy to become a symbol of a new, younger America. His public lifestyle and his rhetoric did seem to symbolize that youthful time, but his political actions did not represent youthful rebellion and idealism, but rather immature adventurism in foreign affairs and a middle-aged willingness to live with the status quo in everything else.
Part of the Kennedy myth is his personal glamour and elegance—but it was the glamour of rich folks spending their money on expensive stuff. The glamour was also part of the Kennedy PR machine, as exemplified by the first lady’s televised tour of the White House. I do, however, appreciate the fact that until Obama, Kennedy was our last president to cherish urban and urbane values. Between these two, all our presidents have wanted to be seen flipping sausages at a barbecue pit or chopping wood.
I do not believe someone’s personal life should enter into an accounting of his or her public legacy. I don’t care one way or another that Kennedy is reported to have bedded dozens if not hundreds of women. It has nothing to do with his ability to perform as president or his public legacy, unless the sex were not consensual or there were something else he did that indicated poor judgment or unacceptable behavior—underage women, hypocritically advocating celibacy while whoring around, sexual harassment or rape, for example. That Kennedy once forced a White House intern with whom he was having an affair to publicly felate a Secret Service agent does not speak well of the man.
It probably helps Kennedy’s legacy that no president has died in office since he did. I remember many older family members telling me how heart broken they were when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office. It occurred 18 years before Kennedy was assassinated and 22 years after Warren G. Harding died in office. It’s now been 50 years and, thank goodness, no one has supplanted Kennedy as “the president I remember dying in office.” The violence of the assassination heightens the sadness and sense of tragedy surrounding Kennedy, as well it should. That there are so many photographs and moving images of Kennedy makes it easy for even those born long after him to know him, or at least know his myths.
The persistent rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate JFK also contribute to his high visibility. In fact, most of the Kennedy myth has little to do with the public man. Just think of the ways that his life and death are being covered these past few weeks:
- The details of the assassination
- The conspiracy theories
- His wealth and glamour
- His sex life (helped by the fact that one of his paramours was a third-rate actress who had a habit of bedding famous and powerful men and after her death became another mass media martyr)
- The excitement of the New Frontier
- The sad fact that he didn’t have time to work on his political agenda.
Of course, there are a few stories of substance as well, mostly discussions of whether Kennedy would have escalated the war in Viet Nam. Typically, left-wingers say no and right-wingers say yes. In this case, the right is most certainly closer to the truth, based on all of Kennedy’s actions as president.
Like most public myths, Kennedy is a vessel into which we can pour whatever beliefs we want. Some see him as right-wing, left-wing, cold warrior, dove, hawk, symbol of a more optimistic time, glamour god, sex symbol, sex pervert, leader of youth, friend to minorities, whatever you want.
My take on Kennedy is that he was a rich guy whose family spent a lot of money helping him obtain an office for which he was less than qualified. His politics reflected the views of large corporations of his time, from lowering taxes on the wealthy to pursuing an aggressive imperialism throughout the world (For more on how large corporations controlled Kennedy, read G. William Domhoff’s recent The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy). He basically cared about power and his social class. That he is beloved as one of our greatest presidents of all time is just another proof of the power of rich folk to manipulate the news media.