By Rajan Philips –
It certainly is not like yesterday, but few among those born before 1957 would fail to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on Friday, 22 November 1963, an event that traumatized all of America and touched the entire world. The fateful day and the moment have become a point of temporal reference for Americans – ever since comparing notes as to where they were and what they were doing when choking radio broadcasters startled the nation with the news flash that President Kennedy had died. Not just the Americans, Svetozar Rajak, a Serbian and now Cold War historian at LSE, was six years old in 1963 and remembers his shock watching on television the announcement of Kennedy’s death . His family was living in Belgrade in what was then Tito’s Yugoslavia and the family had just bought their first television. Two days later the family and neighbours were cramped around the new television to watch Kennedy’s funeral meticulously choreographed by his grieving widow. Their street in Belgrade was renamed John Kennedy Street.
I was fifteen, it was Saturday morning in Sri Lanka and I remember coming out of the parish Church after morning Mass and joining others crowded in front of shops listening to the radio news announcing President Kennedy’s death hours earlier in far way America. Television was still sixteen years away for Sri Lankan homes but the radio and the newspapers were riveting enough over the next two days. Four years younger, I had followed with equal intensity the death and funeral of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, the first political assassination in my life time. But for whatever reason the death of Kennedy was greater drama.
Who would have thought at that time that political killings would become a fact of life many years later, of all places in Sri Lanka? And there have been political killings before and after Kennedy in many countries – and the list stretches from Abraham Lincoln in America to the alleged killing by poisoning of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. While other assassinated leaders are remembered for their political achievements and/or failures, the Kennedy memory is about the assassination itself, the drama and trauma of the moment, and the conspiracy theories that the killing has continued to generate.
It would be an year before I first saw the Kennedy inaugural in a documentary in the USIS Library. By then I had read the inaugural speech as well as his nomination acceptance speech several times. I remember thinking in those days that the nomination speech was the more substantial one even though the inaugural speech was the more inspired and full of memorable takeaways. A little later I was introduced to Kennedy’s pre-Presidential book “Profiles in Courage”, by an uncle of mine who was a Priest and Principal in Jaffna schools. He had received complimentary copies of the book from the American Ambassador after speaking highly of the book in a local commemoration meeting where the Ambassador was the Chief Guest. Seventeen years later on the occasion of a sacerdotal eulogy, Fr. Justin Perera of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo, and reputed Catholic writer and speaker, told me that his proudest moment on the pulpit was when he delivered the eulogy at the Kennedy Memorial Mass at the College Chapel attended by Colombo’s dignitaries including Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike and the US Ambassador.
Kennedy was the first and the only Catholic American President to-date. His victory was a significant milestone at that time, just as President Obama’s victory would become another milestone, albeit a more historic one, in the evolution of America as an inclusive polity. In the Republic of Ireland, whence the Kennedy ancestors came to Boston, Massachusetts, they have opened a John F. Kennedy Trail to trace his four-day visit as President. He was a young leader among old men who were leaders elsewhere, especially in Europe, and his untimely death and its manner made the loss even more unbearable. People mourned in India, they cried in Japan, and Kennedy’s Cold War foe, Russia’s Khrushchev, personally grieved at the loss. The Soviet government was itself in a state of shock. And this year, Berliners have been celebrating Kennedy’s famous June 1963 declaration in Berlin: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” It would be another twenty two years before the Berlin Wall came down.
Many things have changed in the world and in every country since Kennedy’s death. Not that it triggered any of them but it had become a reference point for pundit commentaries or plain ruminations. Some changes came soon after. Chairman Khrushchev was gone the next year, sent packing by the rest of the Politbureau. The same year, Nehru died in India, starting the disintegration of the Congress Party; and Labour returned to power under Harold Wilson in Britain, triggering the end of aristocratic dominance in the Tory Party (commoners like Heath and Thatcher would become the upstart custodians of conservative fortunes). De Gaulle was still five years away from the tumultuous 1968 Paris uprising, but the French, for all their adeptness in the language of diplomacy, were sorely incapable of managing decolonization. After messing up in Algeria they were creating what would become the Vietnam imbroglio. The French would leave but only after getting America mired hook, line and sinker in the Vietnam War. Death spared Kennedy from the agony of Vietnam even as it created the enduring nostalgia over the short-lived Camelot.
Camelot and Conspiracy
English children see the pun in Camelot (came-a-lot) as gone-a-little, but for President Kennedy, King Arthur and his Knights was apparently his favourite story. And his takeaway line from the 1960 Broadway musical ‘Camelot’ was: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”. After his death it was Jackie Kennedy who chose “Camelot” to signify to posterity not only the Kennedy Administration but also the family’s time in the White House as ‘one brief shining moment’ in American history. Regardless of politics and protocols, the entire young Kennedy family represented the Administration in a way that has not been seen before or after in the White House.
Jackie was said to be wary of old men writing pessimistic histories (she spent her last active years in publishing – selecting and promoting the publication of historical writings that did not attract mainline publishers) and so decided to put the stamp of Camelot on her family’s short stint at the White House. But old men, and even new women writers, could not be silenced. The Kennedy life and presidency has been fertile ground for hagiographers and harpies, digging out every detail of the man and his family, his life and his libido, and viewing each detail under every available microscope. There has been a proliferation of books on Kennedy, and quite a few of them have surfaced this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
There is some appropriateness in this proliferation because Kennedy was known to be a voracious reader, sparing no time for reading something – be it in bed, bathtub, or breakfast and even while knotting his tie. There is also irony in that while Kennedy was the first television politician (Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, who would epitomize his philosopher friend Marshal McLuhan’s thesis for our age: “Medium is the Message”, was still five years away) and a consummate one at that, his memory is continuing to inspire more books even as the visual medium is crowding out the print medium out of contention. On the other hand, the television medium came of age by virtue of its live coverage of the assassination and the funeral, the biggest impromptu coverage since the TV’s invention.
Historian Geoff Smith has suggested that the Kennedy assassination produced political cynicism in the country, and catapulted the notion of conspiracy from the obscure lunatic fringes into the limelight of mainstream politics. Running against the government in elections became politically fashionable. Smith even traces the roots of the Tea Party phenomenon in today’s America to the cynicism, conspiracy paranoia and the diminishing of government that arose after Kennedy’s death. Kennedy was the undaunted champion of public service and public action by government. He attracted America’s best and the brightest in every field to public service and to manage the business of the state. After him and Johnson, it has been a slow erosion of the government to a point that Ronald Reagan, a onetime Kennedy aficionado, could win on his slogan that “government is the problem”.
Admittedly, Kennedy did not achieve much during his short stint as President, and critics have surmised that had he lived longer into a second term, his second term would have been as unimpressive as what is now unfolding as the Obama second term. The Kennedy aura has permanently detracted the tremendous achievement of his successor on the domestic front, especially in delivering the Civil Rights Bill, using every trick that a President could do to win majorities in both Houses. On the other hand, Johnson’s monumental misadventure in Vietnam has fed the opposing speculation that President Kennedy would have pulled America out of Vietnam much earlier and at minimal loss. That shows the difference between the two, for whereas Johnson with his long experience in the Congress was a genius on the domestic file, he was not at all cut out for representing America on the external front. Kennedy had the flair for foreign policy.
I was a university student, in 1968, when Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy were killed in quick succession. Only then I came to know about King’s phenomenal (“I have a dream …”) speech, back in August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, and that President Kennedy, sitting in his rocking chair at the White House, listened to it in full on live radio broadcast. At the university, I even parted my hair to the right to mimic Robert Kennedy. Many years later and with more awareness, I have come to think of Robert Kennedy quite differently.
To my mind, there were two Roberts. One was the overt and sincere idealist whom everyone loved and idolized. The other was a sinister malcontent who could never accept Lyndon Johnson as a worthy successor to his slain brother. As President, Johnson went out of his way and bent over backward to please and accommodate Robert Kennedy, who was Attorney General and the President’s confidant during the Kennedy Administration. Robert Kennedy not only rebuffed Johnson’s sincere overtures, but also actively worked to undermine the Johnson Administration. Robert Kennedy could have served America and the world better by working with Johnson and counselling him to minimize America’s involvement in Vietnam, instead of taking on a sitting President for his Party’s nomination. Johnson, who knew his country far better than he knew Vietnam, withdrew himself from the Presidential race. The door was open for Republican return, Richard Nixon, Watergate, and seven more years of Vietnam.
Many of us who were captivated by the John F. Kennedy magic when we were young, have since grown to be critically aware of the Kennedy shortcomings. The Kennedy magic stemmed from his style which shone over his considerable substance. His dazzling wife and their disarming toddlers combined to make the White House a national family affair. Together they gave America its Camelot, even if it was only for one brief shining moment.