What rot -- it was so not Camelot
A new book claims Jackie Kennedy's myth-making transformed modern liberalism
MARK STEYN | August 13, 2007 |
A year or so back, to mark some anniversary or other, I had occasion to say a few words about Camelot, the title song of the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical. And, naturally, I referred to its famous intersection with history: the interview Jacqueline Kennedy gave to Life magazine's T. H. White a few days after her husband's murder in Dallas. This is what the First Lady said:
"When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical. But I'm so ashamed of myself -- all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we'd go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were:
Don't let it be forgotMrs. Kennedy wasn't just idly reminiscing, she had a point to make: "Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was," she said. "For Jack, history was full of heroes. And if it made him this way -- if it made him see the heroes -- maybe other little boys will see ... Jack had this hero idea of history, the idealistic view." As the slain leader's widow saw it, "There'll be great presidents again ... but there'll never be another Camelot."
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."
Life came out on Tuesday. That night, Camelot was playing at the Chicago Opera House, a huge barn packed with a capacity crowd of over 3,000. "When it came to those lines," said Alan Jay Lerner, the show's author and a friend of Jack Kennedy's since their schooldays at Choate, "there was a sudden wail from the audience. It was not a muffled sob; it was a loud, almost primitive cry of pain. The play stopped, and for almost five minutes everyone in the theatre -- on the stage, in the wings, in the pit and in the audience -- wept without restraint. Camelot had suddenly become the symbol of those 1,000 days when people the world over saw a bright new light of hope shining from the White House. God knows, I would have preferred that history had not become my collaborator."
The newspapers immediately dubbed those 1,000 days "Camelot"; Kennedy's official biographer, William Manchester, called his book One Brief Shining Moment; and those who followed him pillaged most of the rest of the lyric for appropriately freighted titles(A Fleeting Wisp of Glory). On one of the last occasions I saw Alan Lerner before his death, he pulled down from his shelf an edition of The Oxford History of the American People and showed me the last page: the story concluded with the words of his song. Nearly four decades on, the Camelot imagery still resonated so strongly that the death in a plane crash of John F. Kennedy, Jr. was marked by headlines about "America's Prince" and Dan Rather choking up on-air as he read ancient show-tune lyrics.
But here's the thing: a day or two after dusting off Jackie Kennedy's musings on Camelot, heroism and idealism, I received a note from the Internet maestro Ed Driscoll suggesting that the widow of the "bright new light of hope" had conjured the most potent and enduring myth in American politics out of thin air. He referred me to an essay on the subject by James Piereson: "Aides and associates reported that they had never heard Kennedy speak either about Camelot the musical or about its theme song," wrote Mr. Piereson. "Some of Mrs. Kennedy's friends said they had never even heard her speak about King Arthur or the play prior to the assassination."
The author has now expanded his essay into a remarkable book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. It's a highly productive re-tilling of perhaps the most over-ploughed soil in history. Mr. Piereson's thesis is that the decisions made by Mrs. Kennedy, the family's courtiers and others in the days and weeks after the assassination transformed the nature of modern liberalism: Lee Harvey Oswald is the dividing line separating Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Scoop Jackson and Jack Kennedy from George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy.
The first victim of the Kennedy mythologizing was the President himself. "Significantly, Mrs. Kennedy's notion of Arthurian heroism derived not from Sir Thomas Malory's 15th-century classic Le Morte d'Arthur, but from The Once and Future King (1958)by T.H. White(no relation to the journalist), on which the musical was based. White's telling of the saga pokes fun at the pretensions of knighthood, pointedly criticizes militarism and nationalism, and portrays Arthur as a new kind of hero: an idealistic peacemaker seeking to tame the bellicose passions of his age."