• U.S.

The Myth Machine

12 minute read
Andrew Ferguson

The poor you will always have with you,” the new Testament teaches, but it neglects to mention that the rich can be pretty hard to avoid too. Consider the Kennedys. The family has been internationally famous since the 1930s, when F.D.R. named Joe the U.S. ambassador to Britain, and it still commands attention today, even when Joe’s heirs decide not to run for office. How to account for the never failing presence of Kennedys in American life? Cynics point to an apparatus of publicists, friendly journalists and starry-eyed academics, all inspired by the family’s wealth and charm and by our own seemingly inexhaustible curiosity–a “myth machine,” in short, that for three generations has promoted a carefully nurtured image of public service, sophistication, vitality and glamour. Even the Kennedy myth machine has taken on the status of myth. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

The evidence is manifest. Last week “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” an exhibition of the former First Lady’s clothes and artifacts, ended a three-month run at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was one of the most popular shows since “Treasures of Tutankhamen” in 1978. It now moves to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and a national tour will follow. The publishing industry is launching yet another flotilla of books about the Kennedys, to take their place on shelves already crowded with books by them. The season’s biggest–and oddest–Kennedy seller may be The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, edited by Caroline Kennedy. These poems are not, please note, written by Jackie but merely loved by her–elevated to book form by the fact of her admiration.

The myth machine chugs and rumbles, yet many old Kennedy hands deny that it exists–or that it ever did. “I’ve heard about this well-oiled machine for 40 years or more,” says Myer Feldman, who first went to work for Senator John Kennedy in the late 1950s and remains close to the family. “Trust me, there’s no such thing.” Biographer Laurence Leamer (The Kennedy Men 1901-1963, due in October) sees the myth machine as a journalistic contrivance. “It’s a useful way to sell books, to pretend that this thing exists,” he says. “A writer gets to say, ‘I am the first to break through the myth machine and bring you the real story.’ But the closer you get to it, the more you realize it just doesn’t exist.” But even Leamer acknowledges that it once did. If you want to know why the Kennedys occupy large stretches of American culture, you have to trace the workings of the machine. They lead back to the patriarch.

Of all the shadows around the family tree, the one cast by Joseph P. Kennedy is the most paradoxical. The son of an Irish saloon keeper, Joe was driven to succeed in Wasp America. He was a master of manipulation, in both business and public relations. “You would be surprised,” he wrote to Jack, “how a book that really makes the grade with high-class people stands you in good stead for years to come.” And so in 1940, Joe enlisted his friend Arthur Krock, a columnist for the New York Times, to edit Jack’s senior thesis from Harvard into a book–Why England Slept–and shop it to a publisher. Joe quietly bought up more than 30,000 copies of the book, which not coincidentally became a best seller.

Joe knew that pictures were at least as important as words. One reason the Kennedy legacy is so durable is that much of it is pictorial–perfectly suited to the postliterate age. As a part-time Hollywood producer, Joe hired some of the world’s finest photographers and technicians to capture his children on film. The stills and motion pictures–of sailing excursions off Cape Cod, touch-football games on windswept lawns–were inventoried, scene by scene, and warehoused against the day when they would prove useful.

Before J.F.K. ran for President, in 1960, Joe was quoted as saying “We’ll sell Jack like soap flakes.” But the Kennedy brand was meant to carry a touch of class. Crucial to the making of the myth and to its perpetuation was the careful selection of what the historian Garry Wills has sardonically called “Honorary Kennedys.” The Kennedys had looks and wealth; the Honoraries provided class and an intellectual reputation that set the Kennedys apart from other American dynasties like the Fords or the Rockefellers. To the set of house intellectuals provided by Joe, Jack added many journalists of his choosing, as well as academics and cutting-edge businessmen.

It was the job of the Honoraries to interpret the Kennedys to the world. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for example, abandoned a career producing serious, much admired histories in favor of massive, beautifully written court biographies of Jack and Robert, both published after their deaths. His services are still required by the family today. When the Met published its $50 coffee-table book as a companion to The White House Years, Schlesinger, 83, composed an essay.

Over the years, the Honoraries’ mission changed from the creation of an image to its preservation. In a project underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation, veterans of the Kennedy Administration compiled a set of oral histories shortly after the President’s assassination. Honoraries interviewed other Honoraries about the President they had served. For many years these interviews formed the core of the holdings available to researchers at the Kennedy Library, serving as a rose-colored resource for anyone willing to write history as the family wanted it told.

Former New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb recalls how, in the first years after the assassination, the Kennedy courtiers publicly stressed the President’s resolve to fight the communists in Vietnam. “The books by Schlesinger and [Ted] Sorensen and the others,” Gelb says, “all cited his interviews, right before the assassination, in which he said it was vitally important that we stay the course in Vietnam.” By the late 1960s, however, the war had begun to look like a gross miscalculation–a threat to the Kennedy legacy. “They began to change what they were saying about Kennedy and Vietnam,” Gelb recalls. A 1970 article in LIFE magazine, by Jack’s assistant Kenneth O’Donnell, recounted a previously unknown story in which Jack privately told advisers that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam after the 1964 election. “I was struck by it because this was so at odds with what we had been hearing from Kennedy people before,” Gelb says. “They were changing their mind and trying to bring President Kennedy with them.”

The Honoraries were not alone in adapting the Kennedy record to changing political fashions. Hailed as a hero by liberals, Jack was also embraced by Reagan Republicans, who cited his ardent anticommunism and defense buildup as proof that he was one of them. And this year, during the debates over President Bush’s tax cut, a conservative group ran radio ads featuring a tape of President Kennedy promoting his tax cut. Jack had become a Bushie. Ted Kennedy’s office issued an outraged rebuttal, signed by Caroline and the Senator.

The political debate is, in an important way, beside the point, for the myth transcends ideology. This is seen most plainly in the Met’s Jackie Kennedy show, the purest display of Kennedy mythology in years. “The White House Years” is a joint brainchild of Caroline Kennedy and the late curator Richard Martin. They strove mightily to give the show an academic and historical gloss. But, really, it is a show about great clothes. And about artifacts, sacred objects assembled to evoke an irretrievable past. Outsize pictures of Jackie and her husband hang from the walls as backdrop for the actual gowns and dresses, poised silently on mannequins and bathed in soft pastels. It is as though Guinevere’s gown and tiara suddenly appeared on the mezzanine of the Met, tangible proof that the fairy tale–Camelot–was real.

Mrs. Kennedy, as the exhibit shows, was a genuinely remarkable woman possessed of two rare qualities: flawless taste and nearly limitless wealth. After the assassination, she used both to promulgate the fairy tale. Anyone who searches for the Kennedy myth machine will probably spot Mrs. Kennedy at its center. It was she who invoked Camelot as the symbol of her husband’s Administration in the days after his death. In her grief, she summoned a worshipful journalist, Theodore White, and told him that her husband loved the musical Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and would play the title song as he fell asleep at night. No one knows whether this is true–Lerner, a lifelong friend of Jack Kennedy’s, doubted it–but White, in a touching piece for LIFE, duly conveyed to the country her vision of the Kennedy White House as “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done and when the White House became the center of the universe.”

“She put it so passionately that, seen in a certain light, it almost made sense,” White later said.

Jackie made sure the metaphor stuck. She orchestrated the images, carried by television, that made the mourning indelible. The riderless horse, the eternal flame, even her little boy’s salute toward his father’s casket as it passed–all were her idea. In those few days, she was, as her biographer Edward Klein put it, the art director for the entire world. She nurtured the myth of Kennedy exceptionalism until her death, vetting the work of biographers and monitoring the flow of information out of the Kennedy Library. She even sued to enjoin the publication of a book, Death of a President, that she had commissioned but deemed too candid. Publicly she kept herself at a regal remove, seldom granting interviews. So deep was the affection of her countrymen that it survived her marriage to a shady Greek billionaire and flourished again after his death in 1975.

Most remarkable of all, it survived the uncontrollable tide of unseemly revelations–Mafia ties, covert operations, staggering sexual indiscretions–that nearly swamped the myth that Jackie had put together. In this new version, old Joe, once an exemplar of immigrant hard work, became an unscrupulous rumrunner. Prince Jack became a pampered libertine and fraud. Bobby the crusader became a ruthless opportunist. Of course, there was some truth in the Kennedy backlash, just as there had been some truth in the Camelot myth. And the legacy wasn’t helped by the third generation of Kennedy cousins, which contained an unusually large share of pampered libertines with a gift for trouble and publicity.

It is remarkable that any of the Kennedy mystique has survived. But it has. For 30 years, polls have shown President Kennedy to be the most popular of recent Presidents, given high marks even for character and personal morality. The Kennedy Library, a limestone tower rising from a lonely point of landfill at the edge of Dorchester Bay, remains the most visited of all presidential museums. For many years scholars have criticized the library for its jealous guarding of the legacy. “They pick and choose their favorites,” says a “friendly” historian. “If they think you’re up to something they don’t like, there’s a lot of material that’s going to be off limits.” Library officials and some historians say the library is opening up more of its papers as time limits placed by donors expire. Even so, some material, such as interviews of Jackie Kennedy conducted shortly after the assassination, won’t be opened until the second half of this century, according to her instructions.

For the first time in its history, the foundation that oversees the library is headed by a man without long-standing ties to the family. John Shattuck, a former A.C.L.U. lawyer who served in the Clinton State Department, took office in January. “We’re 40 years on from the Administration now,” Shattuck says. “We have to conceive of ways to make the Kennedy legacy relevant. And the key component of that legacy, we feel, and I think the family feels, is public service. Everything we do here should touch on that concept.”

Public service–the phrase arrives unbidden in conversation with Kennedy legatees, especially in connection with the younger generation. Living lives of service, most Kennedys today are beyond reproach, beyond controversy–and far beyond the titanic political wars for which they once seemed to be bred. Which is just as well, for it’s unclear what help the myth machine can be to them now, 30 years after the death of old Joe, who built it, and nearly 40 after the death of Jack, for whom it was built.

Walking through the Kennedy Library, a visitor is confronted at every turn with the electric energy of President Kennedy’s rhetoric (“Ask not…”; “Now the trumpet summons us again”). The Kennedys have always reflected their country. Jack’s calls to greatness were issued, as he said, at “an hour of maximum danger.” But the cold war is a receding memory. It’s a different country now, with fewer challenges and subtler difficulties, and the Kennedys, quietly engaged in smaller matters, less needful of myths, show that too.

“Mythology distracts us everywhere,” President Kennedy said. “For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived and dishonest. But the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” It’s a good thought. One wonders who wrote it.

–With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York

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