November 16, 2015

JFK Revisited: The Man, the Myth, the Mythology

Statue of Liberty crying

This Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King according to the Church's liturgical calendar, marks the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The recollection of that fateful day by family members, teachers and others, all of whom were young men and women on November 22, 1963, created a kind of "Arthurian legend" nostalgia surrounding JFK in my youth. As one historian put it: With Kennedy's death, America lost its innocence - and the rebellious, violent, war-torn 1960's began. Kennedy's serial adultery, known to a lesser degree, and misogynistic attitude towards women did not detract from the lionizing of the man and the incessant burnishing of the Kennedy presidency each November. George Weigel's "Camelot Revisited" [November 2007] and "JFK After 50 Years" [November 2013] consider Kennedy's legacy, and the mythology surrounding it, without tears or sentimentality. In "Camelot Revisited", Weigel writes:
Why did John F. Kennedy die? According to the interpretation advanced by admiring biographers (and former Kennedy aides) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s assassination was the by-product of a culture of violence that had infected the extreme American right-wing: thus right-wing paranoia about communism and civil rights activism had turned the city of Dallas into a seething political madhouse where something awful was very likely to happen.
[ ... ]
The Schlesinger/Sorensen interpretation was also congenial to Jacqueline Kennedy. After Oswald had been arrested and identified, Mrs. Kennedy lamented that her husband hadn’t even had the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights; his murderer had been a “silly little communist,” a fact Mrs. Kennedy thought had robbed JFK’s death of “any meaning.” So meaning would be created.
And thus was born the familiar imagery of the Kennedy White House as an Arthurian Camelot, a “brief shining moment” that must "never be forgot." ...
Fawning eulogies and larger than life tributes are understandable, if not expected, in the immediate aftermath of such a shocking, cataclysmic event in the life of the nation. Still, Kennedy's murder has, in numerous instances, prevented clear-eyed, objective analysis of his impact as President in the face of pressing domestic issues and during a critical period of the Cold War. Not to be glossed over is Kennedy's Catholicism. During the 1960 campaign, in a country that was largely mainline Protestant, Kennedy's faith had the potential to derail his candidacy. His speech on church-and-state, before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, is now hailed as a masterstroke in political rhetoric. In it, Kennedy neutralized fears his religion would override his Constitutional responsibilities. But, as Weigel points out, the speech had other consequences:
... a close reading of the Houston speech suggests that Kennedy neutralized that bigotry, not only by deft rhetorical moves that put bigots on the defensive, but by dramatically privatizing religious conviction and marginalizing its role in orienting a public official’s moral compass. Thus Kennedy became, in effect, a precursor of what Richard John Neuhaus later called the “naked public square”: an American public space in which not merely clerical authoritarianism, but religiously-informed moral conviction, is deemed out-of-bounds.
Last but not least, Weigel observes that the dichotomy between one's religious beliefs and their public application in policy and political debates that Kennedy instituted has given rise to "Kennedy Catholics", who are increasingly "... de facto opponents of the Church’s mission in the postmodern world, not protagonists of the culture-reforming Catholicism of the New Evangelization."

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