Looking at John F. Kennedy with fresh eyes

Colby Cosh on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination

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CSU Archive/Everett/REX USA

CSU Archive/Everett/REX USA

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination will be a severe trial for the ordinary news consumer under the age of 60, who cannot help being sick to death of Kennedy hagiography. But this turn of the odometer may be a little less tiresome than others. Time has tarnished the Kennedy lustre, although the Irish still won’t shut up about him, and historical perspective has begun to prevail.

What, as seen from 2013, were JFK’s greatest achievements as U.S. president? One would have to cite his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the impetus he gave to America’s adventure in space. He deserves a great deal of credit for both—particularly the former, which grows more impressive the more closely one studies it. Kennedy was a sick, arguably dying man being kept upright with an arsenal of zombifying pharmaceuticals. His own family knew that he was poorly prepared for the presidency, having paid virtually zero attention to his work in the Senate. But he won a dangerous 13-day game of blindfold chess against the Soviets, often acting against the advice of an eccentric, daredevil U.S. military establishment.

The world, however, is rapidly filling with people too young to remember the Cold War; soon even Fidel Castro, who urged the Russians to respond to any invasion of Cuba with a nuclear strike, will have passed from the scene. As for space exploration, it too is becoming an afterthought. It was Kennedy’s will that put men on the moon in 1969, as surely as any rocket engine, but that event ended up happening at a time of burgeoning ecological awareness and global distaste for American imperialism. Even within the United States, which could have quite justly regarded the moon landing as the culmination of a 200-year epic, the celebrations were rather muted. The mood is not dissimilar now, and the Apollo program has left little legacy beyond a nagging American wistfulness. We now understand the conquest of the moon as an expensive, beautiful art project.

The myth of Kennedy as a uniquely admirable knight-errant has finally, I think, been wiped out by the accumulation of ugly details about his sexual conduct and family life. For a while it was still possible to regard JFK’s tomcatting as the inevitable concomitant of super-masculine greatness. By now it is pretty clear that he was just an abusive, spoiled creep. There are scenes in White House intern Mimi Alford’s 2012 memoir that make you wonder why it took so long for somebody to shoot the swinish bastard.

As for the assassination itself, the experience of seeing conspiracy theories bloom like a toxic meadow after 9/11 has hardened us all against the nonsense that was still popular in the 1990s. Most adults, I think, now understand that Oliver Stone’s JFK was a buffet of tripe. It is no coincidence that Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel book about JFK’s slaying, written after decades of fairly deep research, stuck close to the orthodox Warren commission narrative.

The new favourite themes in the 50th anniversary coverage dispense with grassy-knoll phantoms and disappearing-reappearing Oswalds. One new documentary has revived Howard Donahue’s idea that the final bullet that blasted Kennedy’s skull apart might have been fired accidentally by a Secret Service agent in one of the trailing cars. This would help explain the oddity of the Zapruder footage, and might also account for some awkwardly disappearing evidence—notably JFK’s brain—without requiring us to believe anything obviously outrageous.

Kennedy’s inner circle and his successor bear some responsibility for the conspirazoidal miasma that long clung to Nov. 22, 1963. They knew Lee Harvey Oswald was an unstable Commie loner; if there was more to it than that, they might not even have wanted to know, and they certainly did not want the Warren commission to poke around. The commission’s conclusions have stood up well as far as they go, but its research was intentionally incomplete when it came to Oswald’s possible foreign connections, and that made the report vulnerable to criticism by loons.

In the early ’70s Lyndon Johnson made a cryptic remark about JFK possibly being killed because his administration had been “running a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” This offhand remark turned out to be quite specific; rumours of multiple CIA assassination attempts against Castro were true, as were wilder tales of literal Mafia involvement (confirmed when the CIA “Family Jewels” were declassified in 2007). Oswald would not exactly have been anyone’s first choice as an intelligence asset, and probably had no state sponsor. But notice that it’s 2013 and we still have to say “probably.”

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh