The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination has occasioned a glut of new non-fiction. At the bookstore yesterday, I counted a dozen new titles, and we're still a month out. JFK books sell, so much so that respectable publishing houses are quite content to market ludicrous conspiracy theories. The lingering specter of a grand plot to kill the president is one reason why the assassination continues to haunt the public memory. The enigmatic nature of JFK was another.
How can a man who produced so much primary source material for historians, including private diary recordings, hundreds of interviews, and several of his own works of literature still be so unknown as an embodied political figure that serious historians continue to debate whether he was, fundamentally, a liberal or a conservative for his age? Moreover, he was a man whose presidency was not (with a few exceptions) terribly eventful?
His death is part of the answer. We want to know what he might have done. But primarily, the legacy of most presidents are layered creations. The official story, usually endorsed directly by the ex-president, lives in a library. But Kennedy had no single "official" story. He could not choose one. There is no authoritative "endorsed" biographical account. His closest advisers have their version. Jackie's friends have their version. The Kennedy family has its own version. Perhaps Kennedy himself would have been much more open to a candid discussion about his health problems had he served two full terms.
"Camelot" was a conscious creation of JFK's own image-makers, principally Jackie Kennedy's, and to the extent that history has revealed the corrosion of some of its main principles — martial fidelity being the obvious one, and health being another — it has also revealed the kernel of truths that allowed Americans to believe it. Tragedy — the death of JFK's youngest son Patrick — brought him and Jackie closer than ever before, right before he was assassinated. His health, in point of fact, was better than it ever had been, owing to his decision to (finally) jettison some of his more dubious medical advisers and begin a program of regular exercise and stretching. And Kennedy was, in point of fact, rich and glamorous — although quite self-conscious about it. He was genuinely humble. His sexual appetite was genuinely enormous and even dangerous. He was perhaps the first pathologically sexual libertine to be elected President. His family was far more corruptible than he was; JFK was extremely sensitive to financial or political malfeasance, perhaps because he knew he benefited from it, but would lie, regularly and with impunity, about sex and health. And he got away with it. There is no way around it, so you might as well just accept it.
Putting aside the assassination for a moment, there are roughly three phases of Kennedy presidential historiography. The first consists of the memoirs by his close advisers and his outside ones, like 1,000 Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, by Arthur M. Schlesinger. Being an historian, Schlesinger tries not to conclude that the President he served was close to a deity or almost perfectly a man for his times, but his account, thorough and largely accurate, as well as incomplete, is not remotely critical. Biographies by Ted Sorensen and other top White House aides became the basic textbook for figuring out how the Kennedy family wanted JFK to be viewed by history: A vigorous war hero, supreme intellectual, reluctant warrior, kindly father, man of the people, civil rights pioneer. Sorensen was forced to contend with history's revisionism in his own memoirs, published 40 years later. He learned, principally, that JFK was a man of compartments, who often kept his flattering friends out of some of his most private deliberations and decisions.
The second phase, inevitably, was colored by Vietnam and by racial politics, but primarily by revelations about his sex life and how devious he could be when it came to the public discussion of his health and family life. The Dark Side of Camelot, Sy Hersh's 1997 expose, is a representative specimen. Embedded in Hersh's tabloid journalism is a critique of Kennedy from the left: He could not stand up to generals, was far too passive in the face of a dangerous escalation of violence against civil rights activists, and was too privileged to stand up for the poor.
The best books I've read recently are Robert Dallek's John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, The Last 100 Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, as well as One Upon A Secret: My Affair with JFK and its Aftermath. To read is to interpret, and even though all of these books have a point of view, together they compliment each other rather well. In truth, we can understand JFK as well as we can understand anyone now. But perhaps we choose not to.