Joseph Kennedy
Joseph Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

I have just pushed aside, I confess with mounting distaste, a pile of Kennedyana on which I had been browsing. Graveyard, or memorial, prose is among the least edifying and least pleasing forms of human composition. There is a prevailing flavor of syrupy insincerity, an affectation of wholehearted truthfulness, amounting to the worst kind of deception, which sickens as it surfeits. I can only say with all possible respect that if the late President really was as he is here presented—so dedicated a public servant, so faithful a husband and devoted a father, so witty, learned, and profound an orator, writer, and thinker, so genial a friend, prayerful a Christian, and enlightened a statesman—he is better off in Heaven, where, according to an electoral oration in Ohio by Vice-President-elect Hubert Humphrey, we may now confidently assume him to be.

The Vice-Presidential candidate pointed out (and I refer to the matter only as indicating how someone as normally sensible as Mr. Humphrey can be drawn into this obituary morass of sentimentality and chicanery) that next to his beloved State of Massachusetts the late President cherished the State of Ohio, which had deeply distressed him in the last presidential contest by voting Republican. Now was an opportunity, Mr. Humphrey went on, to make the late President happy in Heaven by reversing this black record and voting Democrat. I must say, speaking for myself, that if, as Mr. Humphrey would seem to envisage, election results are tabulated in Heaven, I have no wish to go there. A glimpse on arrival of Huntley and Brinkley, still more of the portentous Cronkite, would convince me that I had found my way to the other place, and, if so permitted, I should hurriedly make off.

A good deal of this grisly material relating to the late President’s life, virtues, and achievements had already been published before the Dallas tragedy, and to a jaundiced eye bears unmistakable signs of external direction. From within the turgid prose, the handouts shine forth with a yellow light, like street lamps in a fog. Thus certain episodes recur, narrated in almost identical words, in a manner which irresistibly suggests the existence of a cyclostyled master-version. For instance, the following from Young John Kennedy by Gene Schoor:

“Big party tonight, Jack. Pretty girls, too,” said Torb.

“Everyone will be there,” said Ben Smith.

“Sorry,” said Jack. “I’ve got this work to finish before morning…” When Torb and Ben finally got home, there was Jack working away under the lamp on some small-print clipping, some lengthy report by a member of Parliament [sic]….


“It’s finished!” announced Jack.

“Finished!” echoed Torb.

“All done,” said Jack.

Torb’s immediate reaction was to call for a celebration, but the words died in his mouth. This was serious work: Torb knew how serious and what it meant to Jack.

“Let’s see it,” he said.

They read page after page that night, and late into the night, throwing one quote after another at each other.

“You’ve got something, Jack.”

“This is great, Jack.”

The study on which the late President was so ardently engaged dealt with the Munich Pact and the events which led up to it, and was subsequently published as Why England Slept. At some point a copy came into my hands. An Introduction by Mr. Henry Luce did not particularly recommend it, and I remember reflecting that though we English may have slept, at least we did not, like Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, sleep-walk, in his case across the Atlantic to inform President Roosevelt that our cause was lost, and there was no point in helping us with weapons or in any other way.

Here is another quotation, in a style and idiom which, I must say, I never thought to come across outside Crawfie:

“I want a piggyback ride, Daddy,” said Caroline.

He may have been President-elect to the whole world; he was simply “Daddy” to Caroline.

“Sure,” said the man just elected to the most responsible post in the American Government. “Up you go!”

And up went Caroline on her Daddy’s back; and behind him the cameras went “Click! Click! Click!”

You bet they did. To an American well-wisher like myself it is deeply distressing and disturbing to find the worst kind of fatuity dredged up by our decaying Monarchy applied now to a President of the United States. One longs for some authentic American voice—a Mark Twain, an H. L. Mencken, even a Will Rogers—to blow the whole ghastly performance up, not only in the interest of a great American tradition of human equality and the self-respect that goes therewith, but also of John Kennedy himself, whose undoubted qualities and capacities cannot but be submerged under this mountain of sycophancy, fantasy, and hypocrisy.


The same unhappy parallel with our degraded monarchy-worship is apparent in the examples provided of the late President’s wit; for instance in The Kennedy Wit, a lavishly illustrated paper-back which has already run through numerous editions. The Duke of Edinburgh himself could scarcely be expected to improve on it:

Question: Senator, you were promised military intelligence briefing from the President. Have you received that?

Mr. Kennedy: Yes. I talked on Thursday morning to General Wheeler from the Defense Department.

Question: What was his first name?

Mr. Kennedy: He didn’t brief me on that.


President Kennedy enlivened the ceremony for signing of a housing bill with a touch of Shakespeare. Nothing the absence of two Alabama Democrats, Representative Albert Rains and Senator John J. Sparkman who had manoeuvred the bill through Congress, the President declared:

“Having this bill signed without them is somewhat like having Hamlet played without the Prince.”

Even an ex-editor of Punch winces at such an exercise in wit, more mayoral than Voltairean, surely. Years ago when I was a gossip-writer on a London newspaper, and as such expected to retail the witticisms of the great, I used to toy with the idea of producing an anthology of Royal Humor. As a basic anecdote I treasured one about King Alphonso of Spain which actually appeared in a gossip-column. One hot summer day the King was walking out in Madrid, and happened to notice a workman engaged in digging a hole in the road. “Hot work, eh!,” our gossip-columnist quoted His Majesty as remarking, to which observation, the columnist went on, “the workman laughingly assented.” Now, having thumbed through The Kennedy Wit, I feel that I should have to extend the range of my anthology to take in Heads of State.

Of the poetic compositions in honor of the late President I feel less competent to speak. They have been collected together in a volume (Of Poetry and Power) with a foreword, alas, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. There may, for all I know, be some hidden excellence and profundity in:

The talk is of Johnson and a Con- gress
Which has done nothing.
The accents are
Of Virginia, Maryland, the whining
South. I sit in the back booth of a
Chinese restaurant,
Washington, 1963. Before me lie
The New York Times…


He sort
of embodied
the air he sort
of embodied the
air where democracy
stood tall, Jefferson
and Robert Frost were
his advisors, he sort
of clearly gave evidence of
wit and democracy….

If so, it eludes me. It is only fair to add that obituary verse on public figures rarely attains excellence. Perhaps Tennyson’s “Bury the great Duke” is about the best that can be done, and even then the poet, unlike Mr. Schlesinger’s men, enjoyed the advantage that Wellington as a politician had been cordially detested, so that Tennyson was under no necessity to dwell on his public or private virtues. Poetry and power, in any case, I should have thought, are antipathetic, and the late President’s efforts to bring the two together doomed to failure. There seemed to me at the time something tragicomic in the spectacle of poor old Frost reading inaudibly from a manuscript in an icy wind at the Kennedy Inauguration, though the New York Times saw the matter differently. As it wrote in its inimitable way (quoted in The Kennedy Years):

The palpable love affair between the White House and a jade called culture shows signs of reaching an impassioned peak this year. With Robert Frost’s participation in the inaugural ceremony heralding the romance and three command performances at the Executive Mansion cementing it in recent months, the extraordinary liaison between politics and art has been attracting comment abroad and speculation at home.

I had half hoped that Mr. Harold Wilson, with his hero-worship of the late President and emulation of his ways, might have somehow worked our venerable Poet Laureate, John Masefield, or at any rate T. S. Eliot, into the State Opening of Parliament. On consideration, however, I realized that it would have been an act of supererogation. With Snow in the Government, the new Prime Minister needed no Frost. Sir Charles (now Lord Snow) may not be a poet, but he is an indubitable writer of prose.

Anyone acquainted with the late President, or even with one or other of his intimates, knows perfectly well that the legendary image of him so assiduously propagated bears little or no relation to his true self, and that the gap between the two is steadily widening. I venture to hope, though without much confidence, that writers like Messrs. Sorenson, Salinger, and Schlesinger (all assiduously scribbling away at this moment against a deadline and an enormous advance) who were closely associated with the Kennedy regime will find it possible to correct the spurious impression with a genuine one. A small effort in such a direction by Mr. Tom Wicker, New York Times White House reporter, does not, I fear, get us very far. Despite valiant intentions, there is a good deal more myth than man. To demonstrate his subject’s humanity Mr. Wicker leans heavily on his wit, which, as I have already indicated, is but a frail prop.


Meanwhile some guidance at least is offered by a fascinating study of Kennedy Senior by Mr. Richard J. Whalen, now an associate editor of Fortune. Most of the work on the book must have been done before the Dallas tragedy, and, in any case, since Mr. Whalen’s main subject is Joseph Kennedy, incidental references to the late President mercifully do not require an organ accompaniment. Thanks to Mr. Whalen one is able to observe at close quarters the formidable electoral effort put out by Kennedy Senior on behalf of his son in Massachusetts, and later on a national scale. It was not merely that he spent a lot of money (though he did spend a lot; probably more than has ever been spent on elections before); he operated, as well, a parallel political machine of his own, using all the old-time graft and pressures, strategems and knavish tricks, in the traditional Boston-Irish style. It was as though St. George’s father should have thoughtfully put some knock-out drops in the dragon’s supper on the night of the fateful contest.

It is fascinating to see how the two machines—the egghead, do-gooding, New Frontier one and the old-style Bostonian-Tammany one—functioned independently of one another. There were very occasional moments when the two impinged; as, for instance, the unexpected appearance of the late President’s maternal grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald (Honey Fitz) in the junior headquarters, which had just been fitted with a campaign slogan and theme: “The New Generation Offers a Leader.” Kennedy Senior’s representative there, a man of the name of Kane, Mr. Whalen tells us, spotted Honey Fitz and shouted to a henchman: “Get that son-of-a-bitch out of here!” Not surprisingly, “Young Jack looked startled. ‘Who? Grampa?’ ” Yes, it was Grampa, but the old gentleman knew who was in charge and quickly made himself scarce.

Another point of contention between the two parallel machines during the late President’s senatorial contest in Massachusetts was Senator Joe McCarthy, who was well, and even affectionately, regarded by Kennedy Senior, and had visited the family, but would scarcely be acceptable to a new generation looking for leadership. The best solution, it was felt, was just to keep the Wisconsin Senator away for the duration of the contest. To assure his absence, it seems, Kennedy Senior turned to the ultimate source of all his power—his pocket. As for any consequences the other way round, of liberals being shocked by the operations of Kennedy Senior’s apparat, the danger was negligible. They never let out even a tiny squeak. I well remember, when I was a journalist in Moscow, a man in the Soviet Foreign Office opening a conversation by observing that the U.S.S.R. owed an immense debt of gratitude to the Webbs and other Western liberal intellectuals. I rather wearily asked why, expecting the usual claptrap. He surprised me by replying: “Because they’ve convinced us that whatever we may be impelled to do in the way of terrorism and other non-liberal practices, we never need fear their disapprobation.”

In the same sort of way, nothing in the Kennedy record or campaigning ways could mar the effulgence of the New Frontier in the eyes of liberals. They remained worshippers, and have even extended their worship to the succession regime of Lyndon Johnson: a New Frontiersman, if one at all, by late adoption, but in any case the Kennedy choice, and, after all, the most tangible and immediate outcome of the late President’s occupancy of the White House.

In the light of all these machinations on the part of Kennedy Senior, it might, one almost feels, be said that he invented, besides begetting, the late President. Certainly, with incredible thoroughness and attention to detail, he created his son’s legend. To take but one example from Mr. Whalen’s book:

Distributed across the state were nine hundred thousand copies of an eight-page tabloid featuring drawings of Lieutenant Kennedy rescuing his shipmates in the Pacific. On the facing page was a photograph of young Joe Kennedy, whose fatal war mission was described under this headline: “John Fulfils Dream of Brother Joe Who Met Death in the Sky Over the English Channel.” Inserted in each paper was a Reader’s Digest reprint of John Hersey’s article on the saga of PT-109, which originally appeared in The New Yorker.

Later, the same episode was made into a book, and then a film (which I am happy to say I have not seen), under the careful supervision of Kennedy Senior. It is kinder and more respectful to the late President to attribute such activities to his father’s sole initiative. Who, for instance, can doubt where the following originated, taken from a nauseous little volume, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy by Jim Bishop:

The President thinks he would like to have another glass of beer. Mrs. Kennedy puts her work on the arm of her chair and goes through the dining room into the kitchen and gets it for him. She pours it and puts it on the coffee table before him and suddenly remembers something funny that happened between Caroline and her “Grandmère“…She asks when his father and mother are coming to visit again. The President is back at his work. He says he doesn’t know. Mrs. Kennedy says—impulsively—that she wishes his father lived with them at the White House. “You know how I feel about him,” she says. It is more than admiration. Sometimes when his name is mentioned in a group, she beams the big open smile she has and says: “Just love him.”

Comment would be superfluous. In any case, the legend as we have it now, sanctified by blood monstrously shed, was systematically and deliberately created, paid for and propagated as part of an elaborately devised electioneering technique operated by Kennedy Senior. It has proved so strikingly successful that it is likely, in one form or another, to be generally adopted throughout what we like to call the Free World. After the invention of the Australian crawl no one tried to win swimming races with the breast-stroke. The Presidency of the United States and two Senate seats for three brothers not intrinsically of any particular distinction, and, in relation to these offices, exceedingly youthful and inexperienced, must be considered on any showing as an outstanding performance. Whatever may be history’s verdict on the late President’s all too brief occupancy of the White House, the arrival of the Kennedy troupe on the public stage, under the direction of their old maestro and patriarch, is bound to hold an historian’s attention. Those everlastingly smiling visages with, as it were, a neon glow about their mouths as medieval saints had haloes about their heads; the enormous wealth which has mounted the whole performance, and the ferocious paternal egotism which has animated it; the brooding sense of a tragic doom which has already struck mortally three times, hanging over the family’s success story—it is a Shakespearean rather than a political or sociological theme.

With such a background one can understand why the late President always seemed, in his public persona, to have a certain unreality; as though he belonged to a strip-cartoon rather than to life. His gestures were somehow mechanical; his tone of voice was invariable (as I noticed recently in a television compilation of his public addresses), whether he was addressing a scout rally or the nation at the time of the Cuban crisis. This robot-like quality, extending even to his charm, enveloped him, as I thought, in a pervasive sadness (references to which, in guarded terms, have crept into the legend itself), noticable particularly on the rare occasions when the neon smile could be extinguished. It is, after all, an unhappy fate to be imprisoned in a legend, whether as avatar, monarch, or president; to hold out bleeding hands for all to shake, to be nailed to an electoral cross, and expire on a universal-suffrage Golgotha.

This Issue

January 28, 1965