The Kennedy myth - and why we believed it
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 June 2004)

William Manchester, who died on Tuesday at the age of 82, gave the title One Brief Shining Moment to the last of his three books about John F. Kennedy. Camelot, the musical that contained those words, opened the year Kennedy was elected, but while he was alive no one connected his presidency and the Knights of the Roundtable. It was only after his assassination that his widow introduced this theme. She told journalist Theodore White that her husband had hoped his era might resemble King Arthur's as depicted on Broadway, a time of magic and nobility.

That notion, which JFK may have mentioned only briefly, was rushed into Life magazine by White and then repeated endlessly. It gave the Kennedy administration a trademark and a mythical dimension that have survived all revelations of scandal. When it first appeared in print it sounded vain and foolish, but it was ironically appropriate. King Arthur's time exists as 6th-century folklore reinvented by fiction writers. And Kennedy as the public knew him was also largely fictional, the finest political legend fabricated in modern times, devised by Kennedy and his band of helpers, paid and volunteer.

The obituaries depicted Manchester as an honest popular historian, but on the subject of his old friend Kennedy, he wrote like a press agent.

His Portrait of a President, in 1962, demonstrated (as Tom Wicker said in The New York Times) that the portraitist was "smitten" and "gazed upon the subject with loving eyes," finding redeeming beauty in every flaw.

In 1967 Manchester's book on the assassination, Death of a President, involved him in a dispute with Jacqueline Kennedy over what should be said about the family and about their antipathy to JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson. But it contained nothing to upset anyone who considered Kennedy a great man. Nor did One Brief Shining Moment, in 1983, another product of Manchester's adoration.

It's often said that TV made Kennedy hugely popular, but at the time, still photos and books seemed more important. Kennedy kept a talented photographer on staff and always looked good in stills (unlike John Kerry, who sometimes looks unpleasantly vulpine in his photos). Meanwhile, a series of books expanded Kennedy's legend and funnelled material to thousands of journalists.

Everyone seemed anxious to sustain the legend. Reporters, cultivated and flattered by Kennedy, seem to have desperately wanted his approval. They became guardians of his privacy, as he defined it. His secrets were safe with them.

Every detail of his life, large or small, required editing. A philanderer of epic appetites, he appeared in print as a solid family man.

The world wasn't allowed to know he smoked cigars (they symbolized the old-fashioned politics he was allegedly replacing) or that he needed reading glasses. More important, he and his doctors hid the fact that he was terribly ill and heavily medicated during much of his adult life. They all successfully presented him as healthy, youthful and vigorous, a man whose worst problem was an unreliable back.

Aside from Manchester, the authors who provided the basis for Kennedy worship were Theodore White, Arthur Schlesinger, and Ted Sorenson.

White's 1961 best-seller, The Making of the President, portrayed JFK and all his followers as intelligent, high-minded, and witty. Schlesinger, the historian who served on Kennedy's staff, wrote a brilliant and enthusiastic memoir, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Ted Sorenson, the chief speech-writer, wrote Kennedy, covering the same territory. Together they set a tone that lasted for 15 years.

These were works of hagiography, written by the pious for the pious, received with the same respect given to lives of saints. Kennedy appears in all of them as a man of bravery and honour, facing terrifying problems with high principles.

Literary people especially admired those qualities, and liked to hear that Kennedy read books. Norman Mailer, who went to the Democratic convention in 1960 as a reporter for Esquire, was the most surprising and (at the time) most famous of his idolaters. He acknowledged that Kennedy's political ideas were ordinary, but he was so excited by Kennedy's presence that he admitted doing his "best to write a piece which would help him to get elected."

In a much-admired article, Superman Comes To The Supermarket, Mailer wrote about him with urgency and romantic admiration. He argued that Kennedy was not only intelligent, attractive and highly composed ("he carried himself with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause") but also profound, an American in the great tradition of self-defining adventure. Later, in a moment of honesty never approached by the other Kennedy celebrants, Mailer called that piece "an act of propaganda."

Much of the world fell as hard for Kennedy as Mailer did.

Certainly I was an unabashed JFK admirer, like most people I knew at the time. Why did we believe in this elaborate fiction? For the usual reason.

We wanted to believe. We embraced, perhaps for the first and last time in our lives, an ancient ideal of virtue, wisdom and beauty embodied in one great leader. Foolish thinking, of course, but not entirely ignoble.

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