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The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

On November 22, 1963, nearly five thousand people died in the United States. It was an ordinary day in this respect. But on that particular Friday, President Kennedy was one of the five thousand. From the response of the nation, revealed through its culture, you would have thought that death had been invented on November 22, 1963. And for that culture, it indeed had.

The death was untimely and violent, and to this extent it was “senseless.” But so are many, many other deaths. An old man, fulfilled, dies in his sleep—what a sweet passing. To arrive at this golden point, however, the old man had to grow old, and to confront a hundred thousand times the unknowable fact of his own death. The President died less by dying young, and without nagging pain. But how much have living Americans died through him, in this modern revision, by the networks, of the martyrdom of Christ. It will turn out to be, I think, one of the greatest cultural events of the modern period.

Barring extraordinary disclosures, it was not a political assassination. Even President Garfield was murdered by a disappointed, if deranged, office seeker. But the assassination of President Kennedy was not a clearly purposeful political assassination. It was something larger. Oswald appears to have been a Communist-affiliated paranoid, and since the event occurred in the leading Right-wing area of the country, the initial ambiguities are thus provided by the undischarged psychotic potentialities of the day. This, and nothing else, is the basis of the great myth. Begin with these ambiguities, add the simple Christian fact that the man is dead, and it would be as astounding as the events themselves if one ambiguous symbol did not join with another in a pyramid of meaning mounting to a prominent place in the Valhalla of this Republic.

The martyr is not the man who suffers superlatively, but the man whose life takes on a startling meaning by virtue of a perfect death. In this sense, the President is a genuine martyr: so genuine that one is aghast at the wisdom of accidental history. As with any myth, the facts will be argued until the day after kingdom comes: the facts of Oswald’s intention and culpability, of the Dallas police department’s intentions and competence, of Lyndon Johnson’s intentions and achievements—but far beyond everything else, and despite everything else, there will be the “facts” of Kennedy’s potentiality as of the moment preceding his death. Because what died was potentiality, and it was this that was martyred.

Starting from the perspective of the ward-heeling savvy of Honey Fitz, the multi-millionairing of Ambassador Joe, and the smooth, smart, ruthless capture of the crown by a superbly prepared New Man superbly joining and using his antecedents—one can trace a brief course in American history, developing, as it turned out, into Greek tragedy. What that family attempted: what that family did; what happened to that family. And how it reveals our history, ridding us at last of Abe’s log cabin (invented by or for Harrison) and allowing us to enter a twentieth-century fantasy with city immigrants as heroes, instead of homesteading farmers.

President Kennedy’s achievement—indeed his effort—was cultural rather than political, in life as so obviously in death. He did nothing commensurate with his pretension. Under extreme pressure from the streets, he delivered a splendid civil rights speech as Lincoln, also under great pressure and just as belatedly, delivered a dull but effective Emancipation Proclamation. But one was a speech, while the other was an act. And the President was clearly, at the time of his death retreating carefully in the face of White reaction in the North.

Kennedy was young and well-favored, and so is his wife. But these assets could have become liabilities if they had been used differently. They were, instead, used very well indeed. He made youth stand for energy, and then he offered this energy in the support of proper principles. His exceptional quality was his educated intellect (exceptional for an American president), and so his style was not only energetic and proper but it also constituted a cultural advance. He took over Stevenson’s clientele without much difficulty, and some Republicans besides. The overall achievement was their style. During Kennedy’s campaign, I had thought that he was acting on a careful critique of the Truman administration. But it turned out that he was concentrating on getting elected, not on making history as Roosevelt did, and that he was running against Eisenhower (which Nixon could not do because he had to make believe he was Eisenhower). He built up an image of energy and purposefulness, more narrowly managerial than ideologically liberal. Once elected, his hundred days were about as much like Roosevelt’s as his civil rights speech was like Lincoln’s Proclamation.

Until the Bay of Pigs, his administration was all excellent “task force” reports and satisfyingly professional messages to Congress. And Sorenson, no question, is a fine speech-writer. Then suddenly it turned out that Congress was hard to influence in any desired direction. And it was again discovered that the Presidency is a much bigger and more effective and satisfying office in questions of foreign policy than it is smack in the middle of a domestic mess. (Though in all fairness that red telephone could drive anybody crazy.) The steel encounter and stock market tumble ended the chance of any really serious economic measures. There remained only business bribery (the depreciation action of 1962) and the deviously, desperately inept tax bill of 1963—the last act, if ever there was one, of an over-all policy facing political bankruptcy. The political point is to achieve a purposeful deficit by any number of possible means. Kennedy’s effort to achieve this by throwing a comprehensive tax bill to the congressional wolves was an act of helplessness—encouraged, no doubt, on the business- Wall Street side of the Administration by a certain lack of sincerity as well. When the President died, the whittler’s knife had already begun work on the civil rights bill, the tax measure was nearly beyond liberal support, and neither was any longer promised for 1963. This Prince Hal died before Agin-court.

The inheritance left by President Kennedy is immense because he began so much, finished so little. Again, it was all style, all unfulfilled. Even his two great achievements—surviving the Cuban confrontation, and making a fact out of the limited test ban treaty—are potential in their nature. Both are preparatory, and both are exercises of the Presidency in the more traditional foreign sphere.

There remains his popularity. Kennedy not only had it, he desired it. He wanted to be liked by the whole world. Who doesn’t? But he had the opportunity: the rest of us don’t. The generic criticism in Washington is that he was deeply concerned about his popularity, that he hoarded it, that he took his natural friends for granted in order to pursue and convert his natural enemies. This psychological view fits neatly into the very special course of his actual economic policy (remembering all the while that he was very smart, he knew the score, his problem was not academic but political).

With his style, with his popularity—with all that fresh tone, that late harbinger of serious and responsible Establishment leadership in the United States, at last—he made love, to be succinct, to the American people. He concentrated on it, and he managed to get the people to love him (he was proud of his capacity to get elected, his know-how). So he left a nation of unfulfilled lovers behind him.

With this background, let us now recall the startling essence of the event—the televised community of death.

Death is not unknown to popular culture. In fact as an accompaniment to violence and official morality, it is an all-too-frequent event. But this kind of death is short and silly, really a form of punctuation in the grammar of popular culture. Death is almost never the “subject” of a representation—except perhaps the sickening revulsion toward it put forward in post-war movies, the underside of the noble attitude toward death required in war-time films. Mostly it is the death of detective stories, part of the convention, or an ancillary fact accompanying violence or official evil. It is mostly like Oswald’s death, with the advantage that it is staged and photographed better, but with the disadvantage that is not quite so “real.” Oswald was tried on television and executed on television, a pattern of swift justice which had been fully developed earlier in TV westerns.

The networks stayed with the whole story practcically around the clock for three and a half days, approximately eighty-two hours. The central character in the drama was the coffin. In mute splendor, it hypnotized the camera, just as the camera hypnotized us. Mrs. Kennedy had been closest to the President in life; she was an essential part of his public image; she was sitting next to him when he was shot; if he was not killed instantly, then in effect he died in her arms: she sat alone with the coffin during the return flight from Dallas: and hardly left the body until the funeral was over. In ancient lore, truly the wife of a fallen hero. The whole world remarked on the quality of her presence. Since she could not and was not called upon to speak, true to a visual art, not even Shakespeare could have improved upon it.

And the children: who, in a lesser performance, would have dared to have the little boy execute a toy salute to his father’s coffin? and De Gaulle, the magnificent enemy conquered by death: all the great of our public governments (but not our private leaders—I did not see Roger Blough or David Rockefeller, Henry Ford II or the secretary of state of AT&T)—all filed past the coffin, on camera, the camera that wept over the coffin and interrupted the weeping only to return compulsively to Dallas, in its new effort to comprehend a new subject—real death.

Finally, on Sunday night, faced with the loss of the coffin on the following day, the camera turned to the audience. As the American people filed by the coffin under the camera, they revealed themselves as never before by the sameness of expression in their greatly varied faces. The mystery of death and the mystery of the living interacted upon and enlarged one another. I thought I had never seen the American people before: Could these really be the persons one passes on the street every day? These are accidental encounters, but here the camera presumed to select and sum up for you. As befits a democratic art, the greatest moment was reached when the chorus spoke.

The subject of death is now included in our popular culture, which thus takes another long step in fulfilling its promise to provide us with a religion appropriate to passive consumers. The translation of life into the terms of this comprehensive culture thus continues.

It was as if America had just discovered the fact of death—and on television. What made death suddenly important was the unfulfillment of the dead man, which America suddenly recognized as its own unfulfillment. That is perhaps why it was taken so personally. And Oswald’s death on the screen simply underlined the fact that, yes, death was at issue, yes, at issue on the television screen, yes, anyone in the audience can lunge forward and kill, yes, it is real, yes, it is us. It was awful, it was “just like” history.

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