We can only speculate how much the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago changed history. But our nation has changed in ways such that never will a president be so deified in life or exposed post mortem.
“The Kennedy Mystique: Creating Camelot,” a 2004 documentary, explains how the charismatic first family captured our hearts and how broken we were when the horrific news broke from Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. “Anyone who lived through that fateful day can recall with lucidity where they were and what they were doing,” the narrator says. “For many Americans, Kennedy’s death marked a turning point — a loss of idealism that would never be regained …”
For future presidents, it marked the loss of an opportunity to create such an ideal illusion. Kennedy enjoyed uniquely collegial press relations. But journalists became more skeptical, adversarial and aggressive. Secrets they had considered unfit to print fed an insatiable appetite for information on JFK’s life and mysterious death.
“Yet despite controversial revelations about his private life,” the narrator continues, “he remains a beloved American icon.” Historian and author Robert Dallek says some journalists knew Kennedy was having extra-marital affairs. “But I asked all of them, ‘Why didn’t you go after this, given the current climate?’ They said the culture of the ’60s was entirely different. You did not probe a president’s personal life.”
Hugh Sidey, a White House correspondent for LIFE magazine, concedes, “Let’s be honest about it: We probably violated the rules of journalism as set down in the classroom. We liked the guy … he liked us … so we journalists kind of took him into our group — perhaps too much.”
The other secret the documentary addresses is equally alarming — but more redeeming, according to Dallek. “The assault on his character over the womanizing needs to be balanced out by a consideration of what strong character he demonstrated in dealing with his ailments,” he says. We learn that a variety of health issues had beset JFK since infancy. “Colitis hospitalized him for months at a time. Steroids prescribed for his numerous digestive disorders only weakened his spine and created progressive back problems. More than once Kennedy’s health problems were life-threatening.”
While Kennedy was popping pills off camera, America was fed a steady diet of deceptive images meant to project athleticism, youth, vigor and strength. “There was a cover-up of the extent to which he had these terrible ailments,” says Dallek. Letitia Baldrige, Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary, acknowledges that the “spin” may be criticized as a lie. “But of course the same thing had happened with Woodrow Wilson, with Franklin D. Roosevelt — they didn’t want the public to know these harmful things were happening to the president,” she says.
Two days after JFK was slain, another assault on history interrupted live coverage of JFK’s three-day funeral. Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally shot the only suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, fueling conspiracy theories that persist to this day. Several were woven into Oliver Stone’s 1991 docudrama “JFK,” which historians agree was a public disservice. Philip Shenon, author of “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” said in a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that “most Americans think there was a conspiracy” even though “the most serious scientists … have found that the single-bullet theory is the logical explanation.”
Ironically, “Stone’s movie did cause the declassification of millions of documents that are now useful in trying to get some additional answers to the story of Oswald and what happened,” he added.
A week after Jacqueline Kennedy became a widow at 34, she summoned journalist Teddy White, a friend, to help her secure her husband’s legacy as a hero. During a four-hour interview, “the romantic Camelot myth — one that would remain fixed in the public mind despite ensuing revelations of chinks in the Kennedy armor — was born,” Sidey wrote. White confessed, in his 1986 memoir, “Quite inadvertently, I was her instrument in labeling the myth.”
The problem with “The Camelot Myth” is the backlash exemplified in a 2008 Commentary magazine essay by Jason Maoz. “His untimely death, followed by decades of unceasing image control by the Kennedys and their media groupies, has helped sustain the popularity of a president who almost certainly would have been impeached or forced to resign the presidency had even a fraction of what we now know had been made public.”