The Kennedy Cult

15 February 2008

And there was me gleefully – smugly, even – thinking the Kennedy cult had disappeared into the nothingness from whence it came. I thought that, perhaps – just perhaps – the brash blockbuster events of the 11th of September 2001 had driven the Kennedy memory from the American psyche. It ought to have done. But there’s nothing like a spot of politics – and the muddier the better – to revivify the Kennedy clan. ‘Teddy’ Kennedy has come, puffed up with his own importance, onto more than one podium to deliver Barack Obama his crowning and sceptring endorsement. John F. Kennedy’s granddaughter is screening herself to twenty five states in Obama’s latest, and windiest, campaign commercial.

So those of us who were hoping that 9/11 might replace the grainy footage of the Kennedy assassination as the most recent and exemplary tragedy in the American ‘narrative’ are left reeling and blinking. Something unprecedented has happened. The American public have decided that they want Kennedy to clear up the debris of the Twin Towers. They want to feel united and content and poetic and every other quality of those most salad of days.

It should be recognised, then, that the Kennedy administration embodied none of the values it has come to represent. John F. Kennedy was not a man of peace. He used his election campaign to emit lofty and bellicose rhetoric accusing Eisenhower of having left a ‘missile gap’ between Russia and the United States (He hadn’t). He employed the language, and the analogy, of 1939 Munich. He barely scrupled about comparisons between himself and Winston Churchill.

When Kennedy did assume power – not that he has ever left it – he ramped up American involvement in Vietnam. He spectacularly bungled his shambolic invasion of Cuba, and then removed air cover for the remaining troops in the country when he heard Castro had not been killed. He then blustered through the Cuban Missile Crisis (which was, as Robert Dallek has reasonably pointed out, “a crisis of his own making”) by amateurishly posing and posturing. It was left to Harold Macmillan, that moustachioed old throwback, to nervously steer the situation back to relative placidity.

Kennedy’s worthlessly enlarged oratory never had much of that mot choisi, ‘substance’, about it. His collected hot air about the Berlin Wall came a whole two years after its erection.

When Kennedy’s wordiness did gush forth, he made a gull of himself twice over. Not content with telling his audience “Ich bin ein Berliner” (‘I am a doughnut’), he proceeded to misquote and mangle Dante – an offence, for some of us, that deserves an inferno of liberal and generous cruelty.

He was serially unfaithful to his wife. Until the day he was killed, Jackie Kennedy had never been at her husband’s side on a domestic political trip. This is of considerable importance since those he did choose to sleep with exerted remarkable control over American foreign policy. Judith Exner, for example, was practically rented out to Kennedy by her mobster husband in exchange for a dribbling slice of control over Cuban policy. Kennedy bragged to Harold Macmillan that if he didn’t have sex at least every three days he suffered nosebleeds.

In short, he ran what Lyndon B. Johnson called “a god-damned Murder Incorporated” from the bedrooms and boudoirs of his White House.

And now what we’re left with is the diminishing returns of an already nasty and fetid piece of dynasticism. From his Hitler-supporting father down to the present generation of also-rans and crooks, the Kennedys have been a professional generational con job, constantly polishing their arrivisme.

More than one libertarian has pointed out that the will to obey is more terrible than the will to command – and obedience to the whims of the Kennedy clan seems existentially robust to this day. The ‘Camelot’ John F. Kennedy presided over was as phoney and as naff as the Lerner and Loewe musical he based it on. And the damned thing is still jogging grossly on. Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days was the founding breviary of the Kennedy cult. Do we want this thing to run for a thousand years?

Rob Stagg is a first year English student and blogs at