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Commentary: Myth vs. reality of President Kennedy

by on November 22, 2013 10:40 AM

Hovering over the remembrances of John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination is the ghost of a life that is more myth than reality, more revisionist than factual — one that has left him perhaps forever stranded in sort of an historic limbo between inspirational and second-rate tawdriness.

Truth, it seems, is always lost or at least sublimated in the grief we feel over such an event and the loss of potential when a promising future is cut short. It tends to allow us to forgive or at least overlook the deficiencies that were there for all of us to see if we had looked. But we are often too embarrassed to admit our negligence.

Then should we remember how naive we were about this handsome young war hero? Do we want to accept the facts about his health, his marriage, his carnal appetites, his frequent lack of compassion and social conscience, his dedication to nobles oblige? Do we sweep under the rug his playboy boredom with elected office during a time when he could have been learning and preparing for bigger things?

Or do we, for the sake of our integrity, want to confront the discrepancies perpetuated and protected by a dwindling cadre still reveling in the image of Camelot in the years since Dallas? Oh sure, even those hypnotized by charm are willing to concede his dalliances as almost acceptable in a “boys will be boys” sort of way and justified by his value to the nation. We in the press overlooked his outrageous womanizing. Why should he be held to the same standards of behavior as the rest of us? He didn’t think he should be.

Nearly everything we as part of the electorate were told in 1960 about this wealthy scion of an Irish-American family was pretty much a lie. He was not in good health. His marriage was a sham. He was utterly uninterested in the workings of Congress as reflected by his abysmal attendance record in both the House and the Senate. He actually had not written the book manipulated into a best-seller by his father and that won him the Pulitzer Prize. He was anything but a liberal. He had little interest in civil rights other than in what advocacy of social equality could do for him politically.

That was just for openers. The Soviet Union’s superiority in missile strength that he alleged during the campaign put the U.S. nuclear capability at a decided disadvantage was utterly false. There was a gap. But the Soviets trailed badly.

Was he interested in the trappings of the office when he won it in the most hotly contested election in history? Of course he was, but he had little interest in the nuts and bolts of the job. His brother, Robert, handled that assignment and in many ways was more the president than he. A director of the Marine Band once confided that when he asked Mrs. Kennedy before a White House social event what music the president liked, she replied that the band probably should play “Hail to the Chief ... over and over again.”

JFK’s relationship with Martin Luther King was strained at best, and the president’s penchant for sexual episodes led to one of the more disgraceful acts of his administration.

His affair with Judith Campbell, a mafia party girl who carried messages between the Chicago mobster Sam Giancana and the president, was discovered by the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover brought it to the attention of Attorney General Robert Ken-nedy, who immediately realized the political consequences if discovered.

A decade later when it was disclosed by me and a Scripps Howard colleague, I appeared on “Good Morning America” in New York with JFK’s former White House chief of staff Kenney O’Donnell in a one-on-one debate.

Asked by the moderator and host, David Hartmann, about the import of this I explained that the implied threat of its disclosure by Hoover forced Robert Kennedy to agree to the electronic surveillance of King. O’Donnell did not disagree but understandably tried to skirt the issue.

How history regards our presidents is mostly transitory. It depends to a great degree on the times and who is doing the writing. That is particularly true when dealing with a chief executive who has been suddenly and terribly taken from us while in office. The years have considerably tarnished the image. It is all right to remember and grieve again but that should be tempered with an understanding of clay feet and reality.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at
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