Reporter Seymour Hersh has just published a book on John F. Kennedy in which he attempts to trash the late President's memory by making allegations of sexual and political misconduct. In recent interviews, Hersh sounds like a victim himself, complaining about the terrible backlash which is making the response to his revelations concerning the My Lai massacre tame by comparison. He also acts as if he has discovered something new and shocking and should be admired for courageously bringing it to the attention of the public. One could almost believe him if he weren't touring around promoting the book, and if the book was about anything other than titillating scandals.
Well, the public can be pretty stupid, and I think Hersh is counting on that. Informed critics have already lambasted the book as a rehash of rumours and rumours of rumours that have circulated for years. But the public will lap it up, the way it lapped up similar books on Elvis, John Lennon, and Princess Diana.
What about Kennedy? Was he a bad president? Those who think he was a lousy president can be divided into two schools of thought. The Hersh school, which might number a few liberal Democrats among them, thinks of Kennedy as a immensely successful fraud because he seemed more interested in sex than legislation. He had lots of personal charisma, but no real agenda. The conservative school thinks of Kennedy as a fraud because he was too interested in legislation, and the legislation he did present was bad because it was sometimes-- but not always --liberal.
Both schools of thought miss the point. They don't even come close to the mysterious allure of Kennedy and why so many people continue to admire him and mourn his death. For the answer to that question, one need only view some of the tapes of Kennedy's press conferences. JFK remains the only President since FDR who seemed capable of thinking on his feet. He was witty and smart and reasonable, and didn't sound like a whiney hack the way Nixon and Carter did, or a smug ignoramus like Bush and Reagan. Oddly enough, the only other President in recent times who was anywhere nearly as articulate was Johnson, who has an undeserved reputation as a loser. Reagan was all folksy and down to earth and if that's what passes for poetry in your household, so be it. Nixon could be articulate, but he could not be gracious or reasonable: he was too small-minded and vindictive. And he hated Kennedy with a passion, for he knew, better than anyone else, that Kennedy had all the great attributes that he didn't have. Above all else, Kennedy was confident and self-secure, and those are good qualities in a leader.
It is quite possible that, had Kennedy lived, he might have turned out to be a failure, but I think it unlikely. Without a doubt, he would have been less popular, because he would have had to make at least some unpopular decisions. There are some strong indications that he would have pulled the U.S. troops out of Viet Nam altogether, which would have saved America a decade of agony. He was leaning towards the right decisions on the immensely important civil rights issue. His brother, Bobby, as Attorney General, attacked the mob and corrupt union officials with a tenacity that has been unmatched before or since (instead, we have the colossal fraud of the "war on drugs", $50 billion spent in four years on increasing the street value of heroin, thereby increasing the number of dealers). Above all else, Kennedy was modern in a sense that no President since was modern. He understood the passion of youth for change, for reform, for social justice, and he seemed actively engaged in trying to accommodate this passion within the realities of U.S. politics.
The shock that many of us felt after his death was more than grief for a dead leader, for Kennedy seemed to be a fundamentally decent, intelligent man. Our grief was permutated with a sense of realization that politics was back in the control of the filthy, smarmy, corrupt, petty, small-minded wheelers and dealers who had controlled it before Kennedy. Or maybe it had never really left their control, and Kennedy's bloody murder merely revealed the truth to us. Either way, Kennedy had transgressed this old order and paid dearly for it (unless you still believe in the myth of Oswald as a lone assassin). In some crucial way, it doesn't matter whether he himself was free of the corruption that surrounded him: the youth of the 1960's thought there was reason to hope, and, through Kennedy, thought it was possible to effect reforms through the power of government.
Today, there is Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich. Jesse Helms. Bob Dole. Eighty-five percent of congressmen get re-elected because once they are in power they are able to exchange legislative favours for huge amounts of cash from powerful Political Action Committees with which to attack their political opponents. The average citizen doesn't stand a chance of being heard, so most don't even vote. It makes you want to puke.