The End of Camelot

So – coming up on another one of those Very Significant Anniversaries, I see – being reminded by the perfect flood of stories reflecting back on Jack and Jackie and that fateful swing through Texas in 1963. My – fifty years, a whole half-century … yes, it’s time again to go back to those heartbreaking days of yesteryear and recall the blighted promise, the towering intellectual and romantic splendor of the Kennedy White House, the space race to the moon, Jackie’s unerring sense of style and taste … also little things like Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets, immanent thermonuclear war, speedball injections from Dr. Feelgood, and the Kennedy men porking anything female who was unwary enough to stand still for a moment. Why, yes – I was never really a Kennedy fan, per se. Nor were my family, since Mom and Dad were your basic steady Eisenhower Republicans, and maintained a faint and Puritan distrust of anything smacking of glamor, or media-generated BS. Which they were correct in, as it eventually emerged in small discrete dribbles and decades later, that practically everything about the Kennedys was fake, except for Jackie’s taste in fashion and interior decoration.
I didn’t know anything about all that – at the time. I had just started at a new school since Mom and Dad had just moved during the summer from the White Cottage to Redwood House; Miss Gibson’s class, at Sunland Elementary School – a slightly larger school than Vinedale Elementary, about half a mile up La Tuna Canyon Road from the White Cottage. There were some friends which I missed seeing every day, but I was settling in OK. We were all looking forward to Thanksgiving, and the leaves on the big old sycamore trees around the pink classroom bungalows were shedding their leaves. I liked Miss Gibson – she had hit on the notion of reading aloud to us for about half an hour after lunchtime, every afternoon; there had been a long book about the life and adventures of an otter, an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery which had us enthralled for weeks; and if memory serves, even a few stories from The Illustrated Man. One of the other treats for her class was a radio series of dramatized biographies; about half an hour long, I think, and broadcast in late morning, after recess. That program was supposed to be broadcast, that November day; Miss Gibson dismissed us all to recess, and went to turn on the radio and turn it to the correct station in advance. Another girl and I stayed behind; some question that we had to ask of her, as she fiddled with the radio. But the first thing that we heard was a news bulletin; the President had been shot, was dead. I think the announcer repeated the announcement at least once, but we didn’t need any more confirmation, because Miss Gibson began crying. This was huge news, of course; the only other presidents being assassinated that we knew of, had all been a long time ago. We ran to tell our classmates; I suppose there would have been some official announcement later, but I can’t recall it. Certainly by the time we were dismissed at the end of the day, everyone knew. This was long before Mom and Dad had a television, but there was non-stop coverage on the radio. I rather think we listened to as much of the funeral as we could bear; my friends who did have TV said there was nothing on but coverage of it all. For a long while, we had a copy of that Life Magazine issue with all the classic pictures; arriving at Love Field, the Connellys and the Kennedys smiling from the open limo, of Oswald grimacing in pain as Jack Ruby shot him, Jackie in her blood-stained suit standing as LBJ was sworn in on board AF-1 on the way back to Washington, veiled in black with the two children in pale blue coats on either side … I might still have that issue, somewhere in a box in the garage.

They’re just about all gone now – the Kennedys. Robert was assassinated five years later, and the rest of them fell away, one by one. Only Caroline survives, and the luster of Camelot has pretty well faded. Glamor always does – in the archaic sense of something wrought by magic and illusion to disguise something otherwise rather tawdry. But while that glamor worked, they looked good, the whole clan of them; handsome, fashionable, intelligent and able – the good PR on them was impeccable. They had the best press that money could buy; just as the Obamas would be treated like precious pearls, lightly buffed with a soft lint-free cloth and displayed on a velvet backdrop, so were the Kennedys.

And just as with the Obamas in 2008 and 2009, I would swear that the mainstream media and the intellectual establishment then were just as deeply in love. How heartbroken they were over the assassination, the loss of their precious, their Golden One. Really, I believe that at least some of the resulting vicious treatment of LBJ throughout the rest of the 1960s must have stemmed from a feeling of pique – that that ill-spoken, uncouth Texas pol would dare follow in the footsteps of their idol. To be fair, LBJ richly deserved much critical comment which came his way, especially when it came to foreign policy.

22 thoughts on “The End of Camelot”

  1. John Kennedy was the first “cool” president. Eisenhower was dull but competent.

    It changed our politics and that change brought us, finally, to Obama.

    Kennedy was really a phenomenon. I knew a girl at USC, where I was a student, who was really smart and level headed. It helped that her father invented the parking meter and then died leaving every thing to her. She went to a big rally on campus where Kennedy was appearing and giving a speech. She came back from the rally, a nut. She was one of the “jumpers,” young girls who kept jumping in the back of the crowds when he was appearing.

    That fall, I voted for Nixon without a moment’s doubt.

    When Kennedy was assassinated, my wife stayed home and watched TV all weekend. The weekend was the opening of pheasant season so I went hunting with some buddies. I heard Ruby shoot Oswald on the radio as we were driving to another field.

  2. Yes – I remember the cylindrical house very well – my brother’s best friend lived in a house nearby, just about where that road was closed to through traffic back then!

  3. I don’t remember the cylindrical house but I used to drive La Tuna canyon road to Malibu from the San Fernando Valley in the 60s. I would drive by Reagan’s ranch, which just off La Tuna Canyon Road. There was a flap about it when he was governor and he sold it and bought the ranch in Santa Barbara.

  4. Another La Tuna Canyon … this one ran through the San Gabriels from Sun Valley to La Crescenta. It was closed for years, as it was so badly engineered that I was told they would bring engineering students from all over to show them how NOT to build a road through a certain kind of hilly area.

  5. Some impressions on this subject that have been percolating in my mind over these past few days as the anniversary draws near:

    My family was blue collar, FDR democrats, and Catholic to boot, so as a young man I was totally enraptured with the whole Camelot mystique, and utterly devastated by the assassination.

    We sat in front of the tv constantly over the weekend, and my mother and aunt sobbed during the funeral as if a family member had died. I can hear the drums any time I recall that grim day.

    Over the years, as the various revelations came out regarding his many faults, I have re-evaluated the whole deal intellectually, but the emotional pull is still there, although it probably consists of a childish wish it could have actually have been true as much as anything.

    I think losing JFK that way was one of the major triggers for the later defiance and unrest that convulsed the country, and having LBJ succeed him was also disastrous.

    (By the way, there was no distinction between LBJ’s domestic politics and his foreign policy—he was the same over-reaching, control freak about both. In fact, his attempt to translate the carrot and stick features of his domestic political style was one of the major flaws in his approach to the war.)

    Anyway, the dems started moving away from me with LBJ, and broke completely when the McGovern left took over the party. I voted 3rd parties for years after 1968, and still do on occasion.

    I have often reflected on the arid nature of our political landscape ever since, with few successful 2 term presidential administrations, and even those marred by scandals and mistakes, along with the resignations, impeachment, and just plain lousy performance of most, including the current regime.

    I haven’t even been able to stand listening to any of them since Reagan, and am pretty sure I haven’t missed anything except bs, bs, and more bs.

    Even among the bunch of aging cynics I hang out with, I’m noticeably the most cynical about anything political. Perhaps that’s the saddest legacy of JFK’s murder—it killed something hopeful down deep in our hearts, and we haven’t found that wellspring again.

  6. I was interested in current affairs but didn’t know much about JFK, so I asked my father what sort of man he was. “I don’t know much about him” he replied “but if he takes after his father he’ll be an utter shit”. And so it proved.

  7. I can remember sitting in 4th grade watching the inauguration on television. I read an interesting interview of Larry Sabato – the political scientist at UVA who is always quoted.

    Larry said something interesting in re: the “Great Society” and LBJ – that key aspects of it were going to be tried by JFK, but only in a limited area to see how they went. With the assassination – LBJ took this and “big thinker” that he was, applied it to the entire country.

    Think about the implications of that on our society.

    But I do believe he was a mediocre President. He was going down to Dallas that day to shore up his support for 1964.

    And an interesting bit of historical trivia – in the “what might have been” dept – I remember reading in American Heritage that he and Barry Goldwater were friends from the Senate days and that they had an agreement that, if Goldwater were to get the 1964 nomination, they would travel together and have a series of “airport stops” and have debates like Lincoln-Douglas.

    I think losing JFK that way was one of the major triggers for the later defiance and unrest that convulsed the country, and having LBJ succeed him was also disastrous.

    I always delineate the cultural 50s from the 60s with the assassination – after Nov 22 things got really weird.

    I was 13 on that day and remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.

    Many years later, I went to Dallas and peered out that window – I was surprised at how close that motorcade really was to the shooter – maybe 100 yards or so?

  8. “he was a mediocre President”: really, the reckless fool who nearly blew up the world, and you think him no worse than mediocre?

  9. Dearieme: – one could say that had he not drawn the line at Cuba the world would be very different today – and one could also make the assertion that had he been tougher with Khrushchev with the Berlin Wall there would have been no Cuban missile crisis.

    In his 3 years of office he had no legislative accomplishments – all his admirers can point to is “what might have been” – that is why I give him the mediocre label.

  10. There were a lot of factors going on shaping the Cold War, but you could argue that the Soviets were at their high water mark in 1962, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis they began a long, gradual descent into stagnation.

    He did have a pretty good legislative record in terms of getting his agenda passed

    but he pushed through a lot of stimulus type programs that weren’t exactly business friendly. The stock market mini-crashed on him around the same time as Cuba. That’s why he started all the talk about tax cuts.

    JFK wasn’t the only famous person who died on that day. I think I’m probably more interested in C.S Lewis at the moment.
    Especially after watching Princess Caroline being paraded through the streets of Tokyo in a horse drawn carriage the other day as the new ambassador.. If there was ever a dynasty that the sun needs to set on, it’s the Kennedys.

  11. Gurray – for me, the definitive word on the Kennedys is by PJ O’Rourke in Give War a Chance, in a book review about the Kennedy family. I copied over a relevant chunk of it here, since the whole essay doesn’t seem to be available on line. They were a rich bad family (quoting from memory here) who managed to swim upstream like sewer trout in the body politic. Get the book, if you have a chance. It’s full of rich, bloggy venom regarding the Ruling Class.

  12. Trying to think who was worse – Jack or Robert. Never will forget reading about Marilyn Monroe’s old house – the new owners were having it re-roofed – once all the shingles were off with the frame exposed one could see old bugging devices – “Standard FBI issue” as one retired agent said.

    “…who managed to swim upstream like sewer trout in the body politic.

    Beautifully said!

    Grurray – points taken

  13. Bill, I have been very suspicious of Sabato since he got involved in the sliming of George Allan in the Senate campaign. I don’t know why he did it; maybe he hated Allan for some reason, but he acted like a DNC flunky.

  14. “And just as with the Obamas in 2008 and 2009, I would swear that the mainstream media and the intellectual establishment then were just as deeply in love.”

    I think it’s important to note how people react to rhetoric, especially by charismatic speechmakers like JFK or BHO. Reagan had that ability as well. It’s part of the human condition that people can be inspired and moved to action by words spoken well. How many of the major events of the 20th century were driven forward by words?

  15. Michael – I think he does lean to the left but generally his political analysis seems to be good (at least to me) It was interesting what he said about the origins of the “Great Society”

    On Kennedy – my warped sense of humor is brought to a remark someone made upon hearing of Elvis’ death: Good career move

  16. Thanks Sgt. Mom. I’m a big fan of P.J. O’Rourk. I will check that out.

    If JFK was a nice Steady-Eddie like Ike or Coolidge, he definitely would have faded into obscurity like another James Garfield instead of the mythical glamor boy king.

    Part of that is the myth was helped along by the celebrity worship our modern culture is so attached to.

    Another part of that was his administrative agenda. All the great stories are about the duels with communism or the big speeches, but his political strategy often gets overlooked.

    Ike was somewhat detached from domestic affairs while at the same time the economy was pretty uneven especially his last year in office. Kennedy and his group of young, overachieving systems men swept in with a flurry of energy and activity. The tradition of governmental pump priming, tinkering, and fine tuning really started with them, and so did the time honored tradition that every new president must outspend his predecessor. They did some things right, some things were pretty meaningless, but mostly they got lucky and ran with it. By the time any big consequences and ramifications came do, like Bill said, he was gone.

  17. A childhood friend worked at the Kennedy compound one summer in the 1970s. Without telling tales out of school, I will simply quote my childhood friend on his assessment of the Kennedys: “The Kennedys present themselves as rich people with a conscience. They are merely rich people.”

  18. @Gringo – and if they did present themselves as having a “social conscience” – the good deeds were to be done always other other people’s money

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