I wrote this piece a long time ago and didn’t end up using it for anything but when I found out that Tuesday, May 23, 2017 was #JFK100 Social Media Day, I thought it was the perfect time to dust this off and give it a home. I know it’s really long for a blog post but the subject warrants it.
Who was John Fitzgerald Kennedy? It’s difficult to cut through all the labels – President, playboy, peacemaker, cold warrior, war hero, author, celebrity – and find the man. I was born eight years after President Kennedy’s murder and know him only through the mediated representations I have seen, heard, and read. It’s impossible for us to fully get past the iconic JFK and consider Jack – the son, brother, husband, father, friend – that few had the privilege to be close to. It is the loss of the icon that most of us have treated as our own personal tragedy; how much greater the loss must be for those who actually perceived him to be a mortal human being all along.
My first impression of President Kennedy was one of pure admiration with little substance or detail. I believed him to be a heroic, larger than life figure, despite the fact that I knew almost nothing about what he had accomplished or stood for. All I really knew is that he looked good and sounded great doing, whatever it was he had done. As time went on I picked up bits and pieces of the standard stories and lines that have come to define him – PT-109, the first televised debate, “Ask not…,” Marilyn Monroe, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Dallas – and continued to hold him in my personal pantheon of American Luminaries. Then came the whispers of, “conspiracy.”
I entered this world through a film, Executive Action (1973), which I saw on TV in the late 70s or early 80s. I remember telling a close friend that Kennedy could have been murdered by a group of people and they pinned it on Oswald. He laughed at this crazy idea but I started reading some conspiracy theory stuff I found at the library and by the time Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) came out in theaters my friend, along with most everyone I knew, thought there were good reasons to believe Oswald hadn’t acted alone; perhaps he hadn’t acted at all and was only, “a patsy?”
Over time I began to have doubts about my doubts. I slowly realized that the conspiracists have a propensity for lying about the facts, and the more you peel away these layers of false intrigue, the more you realize there is no reasonable doubt left. When I finally visited Dealey Plaza for myself in the mid-90s and stood on the spot where Zapruder had taken his horrific film I became convinced that the conspiracy talk was a pile of crap, driven primarily by people trying to make a buck exploiting the ignorance and gullibility of others.
I am no longer interested in the romanticized caricature of Kennedy as a valiant hero, trying in vain to save America from the evil, “Military Industrial Complex.” That is a fairy tale every bit as ridiculous as, “the Jews rule the world,” and equally destructive to civil discourse. Actual history can be complicated and debatable, its lessons can be elusive, but it is not a vast web of deliberate lies and mysteries carefully manufactured by a “ruling class” conspiracy, requiring imaginative theorists to decipher it for us. I now find it very troubling that JFK, who was the victim of conspiracy stories in his own time, has become the gateway drug into the conspiracy world, and I am certain that he would feel the same way.
DRIVEN TO SUCCESS
“The Kennedys,” as we have come to know them, our mythical, “American Royalty,” are largely the product of one man’s ambition. Joseph P. Kennedy did not start life at the top of the social registry. He had certain advantages, including a father who was prominent in Boston politics and a successful salon owner, but he was only one generation removed from fleeing the Irish Potato Famine and seen as a second class upstart by the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant establishment, who would never fully accept him. Armed with a Harvard education, he would prove himself to be a cunning – some would say ruthless, or unscrupulous – businessman, with ventures as varied as alcohol importation and Hollywood Studio refinancing.
Many believed that Joe’s ultimate ambition was for the White House and though he never ran for office, he did hold appointed public positions as the first Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the opening days of the Second World War. It was in his capacity as Ambassador that he ruined any chance of the personal political career he had envisioned. Widely seen as a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite, Joe’s ill-advised comments, as well as his connection to and support of Charles Lindbergh and the anti-war, “America First” movement, would cast a shadow from which he could not escape. His sons, however, were a different story.
Joe Senior’s hopes fell first to his eldest boy, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. He was the model, “good son,” living up to his father’s expectations and making his brother John “Jack” jealous. Jack looked, and by some accounts he was made to feel, second rate. This may have pushed Jack into being something of a black sheep, with notable acts of defiance and indiscretion. While serving in Washington D.C. with Naval Intelligence, Jack began an affair with the Danish Journalist, Inga Arvad – four years his senior, twice married and still not divorced from the second, a non-Catholic, and allegedly a fan of Hitler – she embodied the fears that Joe, Sr. and his wife, Rose had for Jack’s future; fears they never had to consider with Joe, Jr.
Jack’s greatest handicap, however, was his health. Few outside the family had any idea how sickly he actually was. It wasn’t until he was thirty that he was properly diagnosed with Addison’s Disease, which can cause symptoms from weakness to comas, and made Jack perpetually under the weather since he was a teenager. So severe was his condition that he received the Catholic Last Rites – normally performed for those in the immanent grip of death – three times before he was elected President. It was only because of his father’s influence that Jack was able to get past the physical requirements that most people entering the military are strictly held to. Joe, Jr., on the other hand, passed easily without dad’s help.
Joe, Jr. became a pilot in the European Theater, while Jack got himself assigned to the Pacific; rejecting the safety of the state-side appointments his parents hoped he would settle into. It was here that Lieutenant John Kennedy’s fame would first become his own, separate and distinguished from his father. Commanding a patrol boat was not a prestigious position but Jack was happy there and felt he was making a real contribution to the war effort. One moonless night his ship was struck by a much larger Japanese destroyer in a confused combat operation. Fearing an explosion, Lieutenant Kennedy ordered his men into the water. Once the Japanese were gone and their boat did not blow up, those who could returned to the broken vessel did. Going back into water to look for the other survivors, Jack pulled one man unable to swim, while cajoling and berating another who lacked his own determination to make it. Despite his poor immune system, Jack was athletic, and a born fighter. After making it to the temporary safety of the their former ship, the men decided they needed to swim three and a half miles to the nearest land; cooperatively pulling the two members of the crew who were unable to swim on their own.
Critics would later belittle this incident, saying it showed more about the young Kennedy’s incompetence as a commander than his heroism, and undeserving of the book and movie depictions that followed it, but this seems petty. Whatever actions Jack may have been able to take to prevent two of his men from losing their lives, and the other eleven from ending up in a life threatening situation, his calm and courage in the face of danger, along with his ability to save those not killed in the collision, speaks to the depths of his character. It is arguably true that a book and movie deal would not have happened so easily if the famous Kennedy name was not involved, but it is also easy to imagine that this heroic tale would have entered popular culture without any high profile individuals being involved. It is the kind of personal incident that brings an unimaginably large scale war home and makes it relatable on an easily comprehensible level.
Joe, Jr. flew the twenty five missions required to qualify for rotation out of the front, but he was not going to be outdone by his little brother, the newly minted war hero, so he volunteered for a secret mission, from which he would never return. This was a blow, not only to his loved one’s hearts, but to their sense of destiny. When he was born, Joe, Jr.‘s maternal grandfather, the Mayor of Boston, John F. Fitzgerald, had proclaimed, “This child is the future President of the nation,” and everyone around him, as well as Joe, Jr. himself, believed it. Life, however, comes with no guarantees; even for the wealth and famous. As the Kennedys would learn, time and again, everything can change in a moment.
The plans being made by Joe, Senior and Junior, for Jr.’s first congressional campaign, now shifted to the seemingly unlikely Jack, who was stricken with another round of illness when he returned home from the Navy, along with a badly injured back, which would give him nearly constant pain. People would later say that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was an unqualified rich kid; a spoiled brat whose daddy bought him a seat in the House of Representative, then the Senate, and finally the Presidency. His predecessor, President Eisenhower would express this opinion, to some degree, as would JFK’s chief rival for the Democrat Party’s Presidential nomination in 1960, Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was an easy thing to say, and not wholly unreasonable to think, but far too simplistic and dismissive to explain this young man’s meteoric rise. Without his own charm, wit, intellect, looks, and passion, Jack’s father could not have purchased him a way to that coveted seat in the Oval Office. As many others have learned, William Randolph Hearst for example, political office, particularly the Presidency, is not merely a matter of money. In the end, the decisive factor that Jack arguably did gain from this father was his unstoppable nature, not his bank account. He was going to meet and exceed the seemingly unrealistic expectations placed upon him, regardless of the obstacles in his way. He was going to be the embodiment of the Kennedy family image Joe Sr. had envisioned – beloved, admired, respected – while remaining his own man.
So strong was the flame of their father’s will made manifest in Jack that it would pull the final two brothers – Robert “Bobby” and Edward “Teddy” – in like oxygen to be consumed, after the assassination. Bobby was up to the task. As an Election Manager in the 1960 campaign and then as Attorney General in his brother’s Cabinet, he proved to be a formidable force, wise beyond his years and lack of credentials. After resigning from the Johnson Administration he had an easy time getting elected as a Senator from New York, despite the fact that he had never lived there, and quickly became the frontrunner in the Democrat Party to be the next President. Gunned down by a lone Palestinian man who disagreed with Bobby’s (and Jack’s) support of Israel, RFK remains an even more hopeful legend for many that JFK. Ted’s life was equally tragic, but in a different way.
Left with giant shoes to fill, as a public figure and a surrogate patriarch to a clan of widows and children, it is debatable if any man could meet the burdens laid upon his shoulders, but it does seem that Ted bent, or perhaps broke, under the weight. The turning point came one nights on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s Vineyard, when he gave a party for the female campaign workers of his late brother Bobby, and Ted gave one of the women a ride home. Perhaps he was drunk, though he later claimed he was not. Perhaps he wanted to do more than drop her off, we will never know. What we do know is that the car went off a bridge and into the water. Ted said he swam down several times after escaping the vehicle, but could not save Mary Jo Kopechne. He then left the scene and did not report anything to the authorities until the next day, when her body had already been found and they were looking for him. Was this a momentary lapse in judgement or a revealing glimpse of true character? It’s all speculation now, but the speculation was the problem; it would never go away. Ted received a two month jail sentence, suspended, for fleeing the scene of an accident, and he apologized to the nation, but most people could not imagine his brothers doing such a thing. Ted would continue to be reelected handily every six years to the Senate seat from Massachusetts that Jack had once held, and he’d even try to make a push for the Presidency, but few would rally to the cause.
Ted was a power player in Washington, known affectionately as, “the Lion of the Senate,” but the mask of pride he took on as his own still belonged mostly to Jack, then Bobby or Joe Sr., depending on how you look at it. Ted was the regrettable disappointment, the only option left (especially after John, Jr. was killed in a plane crash) so fans and supporters of the preeminent Kennedy legend and the unfulfilled promises of the 1960s made the best of it and pretended along with him.
A THOUSAND DAYS
President Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected to the office (Theodore Roosevelt was a bit younger when he ascended from the Vice Presidency after President McKinley was shot by a lone Anarchist in 1901). Kennedy brought a youthful, vigorous image, a picture perfect family, and fresh ideas to the Executive Branch, but he was not the head of the counterculture vanguard that followed his death; he was the torchbearer of a new generation, who believed in American Exceptionalism and only wanted to take it to new heights. “The Sixties,” as we now know it, came after the 1,036 days of JFK’s Administration. He was not about, “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out,” of the establishment, he was asking his fellow citizens, “what they could do,” to improve the establishment. The 1960s he hoped to usher in was an extension of the 1950s, rather than a break from it, and it is easy to see why many of today’s self-described, “conservatives,” like myself, see him as a hero. At the same time it is also true that Kennedy’s election was seen as a destabilizing, dangerous force for radical change, by the self-described, “real conservatives,” and, “super patriots,” of his time (e.g. the John Birch Society and the Minutemen), who have evolved into the Tea Party and Trump Wing of the GOP today.
A great deal of speculation has been made about where we would be now had there been no assassination and most of it is impossible to assess. What we can say, if we are intellectually honest, is that President Kennedy’s limited time in office was not as successful as his legendary status suggests. He moved in a morally just direction, speaking great words about Civil Rights, but he made no strides in terms of legislation. He successfully concluded a treaty banning above ground nuclear testing after three years of talks under his Administration and five years under the previous one, but the nail biting instability of the Cold War remained. He did, through his Attorney General brother, go after organized crime more aggressively than ever before, but the momentum was already building in that direction after more than sixty Mafia figures were arrested at a meeting in Apalachin, New York by state and local police in November, 1957.
It could be said that his most significant actions were those of inspiration. From the creation of the Peace Corps to his challenge that we put a man on the Moon, President Kennedy made people feel a better future awaited them, if they were willing to pitch in and help build it. Despite the later disillusionments of Vietnam, race riots, Watergate, environmental degradation, and economic malaise, the spirit he tried to cultivate within us made a psychological impact that we still feel today and who can say how much lower we may have sunk without it?
It could also be argued that his greatest single action was something he did not do; he did not get us into a nuclear war. When President Kennedy first took office he was, in some ways, what his critics presumed him to be, inexperienced and ill equipped for the position. This showed through when he backed a CIA operation to aid Cuban Exiles in retaking their homeland from the communists. Landing at the Bay of Pigs, the venture was one of the greatest disasters in military history. It needlessly aggravated the communist world while also making the President look weak internationally and domestically. Afterward, President and former Five Star General Eisenhower counseled the new leader of the Free World to never accept what he was being told at face value and to get everyone in the same room, where they had to say their peace in front of one another. Kennedy took this to heart. The following year the Soviets, under the leadership of the battle hardened Nikita Khrushchev, decided to test U.S. resolve be placing missiles in Cuba with nuclear warheads. In a matter of minutes they could have taken out nearly any American city they chose. Despite the fact that the U.S. Military already had similar weapons on the Soviet’s doorstep in Europe, Kennedy knew the boldness of this maneuver could not go unchallenged. The question was, “How to respond?” and no obvious answer was forthcoming.
The President kept his cool and adjusted to the fluid situation as it unfolded over the infamous, “Thirteen Days,” pushing back against his own Joint Chiefs and advisors who wanted to be more aggressive, yet not backing down from the uncompromising position that all the missiles must be removed from Cuba. Nearly everyone who lived through this crisis claims that the Cold War never got hotter and never before or since have so many felt so certain that the end was near. Cynics may dismiss the peaceful outcome as inevitable or chalk it up to dumb luck, thinking the odds for any President would have been about the same, but that’s only talk. What we do know is that Kennedy was pushed to the edge of the abyss with the world in tow and he didn’t allow us to fall in.
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
President Kennedy departed the White House on Thursday, November 21, 1963 in Marine One, with his wife, Jackie, and their little boy John Jr. They left a tearful “John-John” on the helicopter and boarded Air Force One. They would only be gone for a few days, they thought, on a quick political tour through key Texas cities, to shore up support for next year’s reelection campaign. They would be back for John-John’s third birthday on Monday and this unpleasant memory would be long forgotten. Instead, John-John spent his birthday saying goodbye to a casket and those tearful moments on the helicopter would forever be their last together.
I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the time spent on the JFK story is consumed by that tragic weekend. Yet most of the people I talk to are still unaware of the fact that John-John’s birthday coincided with his father’s funeral. They are similarly unaware of the details of the assassination and even less aware of the details of his life. Nevertheless, they “know” or they “think” it was a conspiracy.
I have said it before and I will continue to speak truth to this nonsense until the day I die, “Life is not a Hollywood movie,” where Executives can simply hire Writers, Directors, Cinematographers, Actors, etc., to stage events perfectly and film everything from just right angle to make it all look real. As I tried to make clear in my documentary, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015), the kind of coordination and single mindedness necessary to frame Oswald and manipulate the public across multiple generations, is simply impossible. Real life turns on a dime. Crazy people, and sometimes sane ones, shot others, for reasons that make sense only to themselves. Respected figures cheat on their wives and fail to rescue drowning women or tell the truth about their actions. Privileged citizens can see their dreams wiped out as quickly as the poor when disease strikes or a war begins. Presidents, Generals, and “experts” of all kinds get involved in pointless conflicts and blindly search for a path out of the darkness on a regular basis. There is no super powerful, “Deep State,” Illuminate type figures who can transcend these mortal realities and do as they please, with infinite resources to coordinate against every contingency and multiple lifetimes to continue on their evil agendas.
I would like to hope that JFK’s 100th Birthday might finally begin to turn a corner in the public’s acceptance of reality, rather than peddling wilder and wilder tales of conspiracy. Sadly, President Kennedy’s legacy, along with that of America, is becoming more tarnished by fake history and fake news everyday, even as we continue to proclaim how much we love him and the nation he once lead.