Friday, January 6, 2012

The Myth Of JFK And The Beginning Of The Cult Of Personality

I’ve been thinking about JFK. It all began as a sidebar conversation with one of my favorite blog buddies Cujo359. He wondered if the present generation of Kennedy generation was living up to the standards set by the Jack, Joe Jr. , and Ted. This progressed, or perhaps degraded, into a conversation about the relative merits of John F. Kennedy vs. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

It is brutally hard to do an honest accounting of the charismatic and martyred JFK vs the man who succeeded him. LBJ had none of JFK’s charisma, was quite the brutal SOB, and had the extra large albatross of the Vietnam War hanging around his neck. There is not much love for LBJ. Johnson’s legacy is also shorted because he exploited the death, and image, of his predecessor to twist the arms of politicians, and others, into supporting a specific agenda that was all LBJ, all the time. LBJ was quite complacent in the construction of the myth of John F Kennedy, as were others. I’m going to try to put down my flame thrower and attempt to deconstruct that myth, and its very real, very political effects.

There is a reason that I have to proceed with caution. There is a small cottage industry with the only object of buffing up JFK’s image to a lustrous shine. Topmost is the Kennedy clan. JFK is very much their holy relic, their entre’e into politics, and their get-out-of-jail-free card.

But they are not the only people out there constructing the myth. The Media loves the image of JFK. They love pulling the heart strings of the ill and uninformed. They love diving into the warm, deep,waters of Kennedy bathos and nostalgia. It is a sure-fire way of getting high ratings.

Then you have all the retainers and hangers on that surround the Kennedy clan. The actual people who were attached to Jack’s presidency are fading and passing away, but their are plenty of people willing and able to pick up the dropped banners and carry on the cause. Each and every one of these professionals has good reason to keep the myth of JFK alive, and at the forefront of people’s mind.

So what is the cottage industry at? What are they constructing? What is the product they are selling? It’s an image, carefully crafted, expertly preserved, and mostly bunk. It is the image of a young, vital president, dashing, brilliant and progressive. It is an image of a man of political courage. It is an image of man who brought about massive political and social change. It is an image of a champion for Civil Rights, and a champion of the poor and dispossessed. Most of all it is an image of a great life cut short, brutally ended by murder most foul.

Like any good myth, there is a small grain of truth, a core to build on. Jack Kennedy was charming, handsome, dashing and photogenic. He was the first politician who really understood the then new media of television, and exploited it to the hilt. He really knew  how to use the image of his family, the image of him as young Pater Familias, to great effect. But like much of the JFK mystique, the image and the truth of the matter are very different. JFK did have the beautiful wife, and the large brood of children, but the family dynamics were a lot worse than advertised.

I am not going to go into the long, sordid tale of JFK’s numerous infidelities, it is subject that is far too long to relate. JFK followed one of the iron laws of history and biography: men with out-sized charisma, and out-sized egos, have out-sized sexual appetites. There was a pretense of happily married man and wife. This type of hypocrisy was tolerated in the 1960’s. Even today, the visual image of JFK as virile and dedicated family man still trumps the reality of JFK’s serial, and sometimes reckless, sexual affairs.

And since we are, in a way, discussing JFK’s image of virility, now is as good a time as any to drill down into the reality of JFK’s health. Be warned it is not a pretty picture. I really feel for the medical professionals that had to deal with JFK. I also really feel for the patient who those professionals attempted to treat.

If there was one true cross JFK did have to bear, it was his bad health. Where to begin? Do I begin with his war injuries? If so, how deeply do I go in to the symptoms of his ruined back? I’m not going to go too deeply because it is a truly awful thing to contemplate. We are dealing with unbelievable pain and suffering; chronic in nature, with no real end in site. The heavy duty meds Jack was given were only palliative, they temporary eased the pain, but never dealt with the underlying medical issue. There were other work-arounds, other palliative measures, a laundry list actually, but they were equally unsatisfactory. For Jack Kennedy, and many others who shared his type of traumatic back injury, you don’t look forward to a cure to the condition, because the only real cure is the grave.

The back was only one of JFK’s problems. He also suffered from Addison’s disease. As this disease affects the bodies hormone balance, it causes a plethora of symptoms in the sufferer.  Unfortunately for JFK, he had to deal with this disease back in the days when the treatment options were just plain awful. Medicine has advanced since that time, and the management of Addison’s is quantum leaps better. In JFK’s time, the treatment for Addison’s had barely advanced from the stone knives and incantations stage. The health care professionals did the best they could with the tools provided, but JFK was often in ill health.

The contrast between the image of a young vital JFK, and the reality of chronically ill, and often debilitated man could not be more stark; yet we cling to the images of youthful vigor, while ignoring the medical reality. As with so much with JFK, image trumps reality.

Having dealt as best and sympathetically as I can with the actual man; let me attempt to deal with the politician as sympathetically as I can. Be warned though, in attempting any such consideration my default is, “results matter.” The one true light I will follow is what JFK achieved in his own lifetime; in his tragically truncated presidency. I am not going to deal with counterfactuals, with could-of, should-of, would-of. The only honest appraisal of any person, but especially a politician, is what they achieved during their time in office; not what was achieved after the fact.

By this measure I must be honest, it really does not look good for the home team. What JFK actually achieved while alive places him, for the most part, in the presidential category of “above average.” He was brilliant in the Cuban Missile Crisis, avoiding nuclear Armageddon, but domestically he was middling.

Granted I have the advantage of hindsight that JFK did not enjoy, but on the core moral issue of Civil Rights, both Jack an Bobby did not cover themselves in glory. They were an improvement over Ike, a step above, they did move the game forward, but not in the way that is now advertised.

Like Ike, the two brothers were mostly dragged into the Civil Rights struggle by other parties. Let us zero in on the Freedom Rides as a prime example. The brothers did everything in there power to make this issue just go away. In this regard they were not alone. Even Martian Luther King Jr. was initially opposed to the idea of the Freedom Rides. But the movement took a life of its own, and as it progressed the awful images of Freedom Riders being beaten, abused and harassed forced Jack and Bobby to do something. It became a matter of protecting US citizens right to life and limb. Jack and Bobby had to act in the face of Southern attempts to nullify Federal protections.

They did the absolute minimum. JFK and RFK negotiated a peaceful extraction of the first set of Freedom Riders from Louisiana and called it a day. But when the second set of Freedom Riders upped the political pressure, Jack and Bobby finally brought out the sledgehammer of Federal Power. This particular sledgehammer happened to be the ICC, but all the same it got the job done. The segregationists of the south howled in pain, but they were not about to challenge the brute application of Federal prerogatives.

JFK dedication to the advancement of Civil Rights is a fraught subject. He did make motions in that area. He did make incremental gains in Civil Rights during his time in office. Unfortunately, it gets really difficult to measure the real amount of political capital he invested, and was willing to invest, because LBJ muddied those waters so thoroughly after JFK was assassinated.

LBJ flogged the image of the holy, sainted, martyr for the last bit of political advantage possible. JFK might have set up the political chess board of Civil Rights, but LBJ and MLK pushed those pieces around to brutal effect. Both LBJ and MLK were grand masters of that political game. King provided the moral force and the outside agitation, wile Johnson provided the inside game of brow-beating and cajoling the Senate into action. Together they steamrolled the recalcitrant Dixiecrats in the Senate.

I just do not see the partnership of JFK and MLK working in the same way. Even if JFK did bring his A game to the effort, how does a second term of JFK match the first term of LBJ in effectiveness? LBJ had a deep knowledge of the Senate, he had a historic mandate after the1964 election, and he had the image of the martyred JFK to use as a holy talisman. Again, I just do not see either the Great Society, nor the Civil Rights happening as they did without that triple threat that LBJ brought to the political table. I sure do not see JFK racing ahead of MLK the way LBJ did.

I’m sorry this took so long. It has been a very long and twisted shaggy dog story; even for me. I’ll try to drive to end of this narrative as best as I can. History matters gentle reader, you can’t discuss were we are without setting up how we got here. I have spent an inordinate amount of time on the history and biography of JFK, on the chasm between that myth and that reality for a reason. I think that it is with Kennedy that our present toxic cult of personality in politics began. It is in the manipulation of image, the choice of surface over substance, that the John F. Kennedy myth began, that our present political woes find their source.

We have made this choice gentle reader, and we have doubled down on our preference for style over substance every time we, as a nation, have been offered the chance. We did it with Nixon, if barely, accepting a very complex and angry man as a moral defender of a mythical silent majority. We did it, in a way, with Jimmy Carter, thinking that somehow an “outsider” could cure all the ills of a post-Watergate USA. We really went in for myth when we voted for Don Renaldo; the sunny, affable cowboy who would make all things bright and shiny again. What Reagan actually did was a whole different matter, best left for a different discussion. With Pappy Bush, we took a bit of a breather before diving back into the calming waters of myth with the man from Hope. After Bill Clinton departed, we wildly gyrated from the faux cowboy presidency of Bush Jr. , who we could have a beer with, to the professorial Obama, who offered Hope and Change.

It is with Obama we have reached an apex of sorts. The myth of Obama, and the reality of his presidency have been at such odds, that to even contemplate such things brings on nose bleeds. As I would rather not bleed over my keyboard at the moment, I will let that discussion pass for now. I will also leave the epic cult of personality his supporters indulge themselves in for other times as well. Obama did not create the present cult of political personality, as much as he has both exploited it and enlarged it. The cult of personality is quite the 800 pound gorilla, is quite the dangerous, lumbering beast.

It is this tendency toward political cultism that I find so toxic. The willingness of voters to  cling to an image, while ignoring the reality beneath, is distressing. It becomes almost farcical when you look at the present election of 2012. The fluffing up of both WIllard “Mitt” Romney and Barack Obama by their partisans is disconcerting, to say the least. Both these men are ethically challenged empty suites, political operators and hacks. But to their supporters, they walk on water; and possess an overarching  competence that is sadly lacking in reality. It is all smoke and mirrors, and we are without Toto to provide the helpful parting of the curtain.

Sorry, to end on such a down note. Sorry, to end the discussion with such a flame-thrower of invective. Our nation is in a bad way, and our refusal to do the hard work of due diligence with our political class is a big part of why our nation is in such a lamentable state. What to do? What to do?
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