Keeping up with the Kennedys: An Elitist History

This is the story of our American Camelot: one of entitlement, elitism, and noblesse oblige. John F. Kennedy had the might—he was raised with it—and he would pursue the right as he knew it.

Keeping up with the Kennedys: An Elitist History - Fulfilling the Dream
Picture: JFK Presidential Library and Museum

After John F. Kennedy’s death, his wife Jacqueline opened up to the national media about the insider nickname for his administration, penned  by the president himself: “Camelot.” It was in reference to a popular musical at the time, itself based on the story of King Arthur and the round table. In T.H. White’s Camelot, the musical, King Arthur creates the Round Table for an order of knights concerned with chivalry, honour, and justice, instead of pillaging and brawling. They adopt a motto, “might for right,” and carry out the play in the fulfillment of that lofty goal, using their power to give back to the helpless.

Was John Kennedy’s own journey so different? He stands in that long genealogy of privileged children, each given the push towards national recognition: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, even Mitt Romney. Given the immense privilege of Kennedy’s upbringing—that the proverbial “Excalibur” had been pulled for him by generations climbing the ladder of power—wasn’t this the next logical step for the young heir?

Think back to Joseph P. “Joe” Kennedy, the patriarch who made his fortune in finance and industry. His presence in the steel trade introduces him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy. When FDR wins the presidency, Kennedy is the first chairman of the SEC, then-ambassador to the United Kingdom. Think of Joe Kennedy’s children, raised in luxury while their family climbs the Boston social ladder, and while their father uses his power and influence to further himself in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Think of his son, Jack Kennedy, and his rise through the Ivy League, through the best-seller list (with sales largely bankrolled by family money) through military heroism, through Congress and the presidency, and into the  American history lexicon as a bright beacon of merit, energy, social responsibility, and, above all, the promise of small-d democracy.

This is the story of our American Camelot: one of entitlement, elitism, and noblesse obligeJohn F. Kennedy had the might—he was raised with it—and he would pursue the right as he knew it. The People deserved such a king. Didn’t they?

Fulfilling the Dream

Keeping up with the Kennedys: An Elitist History - Fulfilling the Dream
( John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy with Caroline Kennedy / Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images).

The Kennedy family is the closest thing we’ve had to an aristocracy since the 18th century Order of Cincinnatus, made up of Revolutionary War generals who were suspected, at the time, of trying to institute an American monarchy. The Kennedy history of self-fashioning, on the other hand, is about as “American” as an aristocracy could be: after arriving in  America as poor and outcast as most of their fellow Irish emigrants, they rose the ranks of Boston politics through their local businesses and plenty of hand-shaking.

Generations of Kennedys ruled Massachusetts. Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Kennedy, JFK’s paternal grandfather, bought saloons and other businesses in Boston before his election to the commonwealth’s House of  Representatives. John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the future president’s maternal grandfather (also the son of immigrants) saw most of his siblings and his mother die of preventable diseases before getting involved in politics and eventually becoming mayor of Boston.

From there, the family grew more powerful, all the while swimming against an active current of anti-Irish Catholic sentiment perpetuated by Mayflower-descended Boston Brahmins. President Kennedy’s parents,  Rose and Joseph Patrick “Joe” actively placed themselves in the middle of this elitist rejection, paving the way for the next generation’s eventual acceptance. Rose and Joe became the talk of the town, and their children—Jack, and his older brother Joe, especially—would eventually follow suit.
It’s the quintessential American success story, the fulfillment of one of Steinbeck’s best (though perhaps misquoted) lines: “the poor see  themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily  embarrassed millionaires.” The Kennedy family arrived in America as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, an error that they corrected quickly. They fulfilled what so many hoped would be their own destiny in the land paved with gold.

Of course, they were an exception to the reality of America: John F. Kennedy was born at the tail end of the Progressive Era, a generation of social and political action, marked by Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) and the Statue of Liberty gaining its signature lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses,” in 1903, among an entire sub-economy of social criticism. It was another chapter in that great and complicated American narrative: the story of hating the rich and their institutions, yet wanting desperately to join them.

Jack seemed fixed on a page conveniently placed between successive chapters of that book: World War I and its extravagant post-war period lessened the importance of class in America, and he was insulated in successive private schools all through the Great Depression. By the time college and military service had passed, Jack entered public life at one of the greatest times in American history to be wealthy: all of  America had helped destroy Hitler—including rich factory owners working with the government to supply the front line, and investors standing behind the war effort—and we celebrated as a nation indivisible. Daniel Bell pronounced it the “End of Ideology” in his book by the same name:  the extreme right and left converged to form a stable centrism upon which American politics operated for the next four decades. More than anything, in the post-war boom, the American Dream was alive and well. Kennedy’s life and career were firmly set in the self-assured “post-war”  era.

The story of John F. Kennedy’s political fortune goes beyond the conditions of the time, though. It is very much one of institutional power, and of rigorous planning on the part of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Snr.

The Rising Son

Keeping up with the Kennedys: An Elitist History - Fulfilling the Dream
A 1938 photo shows Joseph P. Kennedy, then-ambassador to Great Britain, and his son, John F. Kennedy. ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE.

If evidenced in nothing else, John Kennedy’s application to Harvard—remarkably scant, almost certainly because he was guaranteed admission no matter what he wrote—betrays some sense of the entitlement that the Kennedy children must have felt in their youth, perhaps rightly so: their father, after all, was one of the most influential men in America. His children were some of the most educated, the wealthiest, the best connected, and the most promising. Why shouldn’t they have it all?

It was this massive system of privilege that saw John Kennedy through his college years, and the one that, despite his physical weakness due to Addison’s disease, landed him an enlistment in the Navy. And it was this system that, after not noticing a Japanese destroyer making a cargo trip until the ship had split Lieutenant Kennedy’s PT 109 in half, made him a war hero: after he and his men swam ashore a nearby island, Kennedy’s quick thinking and bravery (or so the story was told) saved the crew from almost certain death, either by starvation or detection by nearby Japanese camps. Gallant though it was, the publicity effort that followed was even more impressive. News of Kennedy’s military valour spread across the country: the Harvard grad, son of the former ambassador to America’s greatest ally, author of the best-selling book Why England Slept, and war hero.

He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medals, and, less than two years later, won his first election to Congress. His father had convinced the current office-holder, Congressman James M. Curley, to run for Mayor of Boston instead of seeking re-election.

And then John met his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier, from a family of equivalent prestige in New York. The new couple’s ritualistic  Catholicism and roots in the American elite argued Peter Collier and  David Horowitz‘s The Kennedys: An American Drama,  gave them a special understanding of “spectacle,” and especially of the sort that looked great on camera. John and Jacqueline’s wedding had been grandiose, attended by all of Washington’s socialites. The Kennedys were knights in shining armour: guards from the American upper class that bestowed upon the country their youthful energy. They were successful, in every form.

Jack’s presidency continued in the same strain. The first lady brought  America into the White House in new ways, leading camera crews around in virtual tours and opening “The People’s House” in unprecedented ways.  Jack, for his part, was minutely attuned to pop culture and ran an administration known for using audiovisual media, instead of simply responding to it. He was the first president to hold live, unscripted press conferences, which gave America the chance to see his wit and humor in real-time. The era we’ve chosen to evoke with “Mad Men,” might not have been far  off, after all: the DNC paid advertising firm Guild, Bascom, and Bonfigli $2.41 million in 1960 to make Jack Kennedy a political force,  with ads featuring lines of African Americans waiting to vote, West Virginian Coal miners with blackened faces, and groups of smiling  suburban women, all singing in unison, “Kennedy: A change that’s  overdue!”

It is this culture—of youth, energy, enthusiasm, “benevolence”—that contributes as much to the legacy of Kennedy’s presidency as his handling of the Berlin Crisis or the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After November, 1963

America was never the same after Kennedy’s assassination: many historians think it was the exact moment when America lost the  “innocence” it had held up to that point in the post-war 20th century.  As a CBS story on the subject puts it, “that weekend began one of the most violent  decades in our country’s history–more assassinations, Vietnam, the  beginning of Watergate—a time Americans came to question almost  everything we had once taken for granted.”

Camelot had fallen.

Conspiracy theorists argued about the Warren Report, college students protested Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, and the American federal government became divorced from “America” at large. More than anything, we went from having one enemy–Communism–too many, depending on your views at the time: the hippies, the conservatives, Lyndon Johnson,  Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Castro, LSD, White People, Black People,  the Students for a Democratic Society, whatever it was they were really upset about, and above all, government itself. It’s still a  polarizing time, looking back. To paraphrase one of my professors, the late 60s were made up of people who hated the way things were, and people who hated people who hated the way things were. The draft tore up families and lives, the Beatles went to India; America had its identity crisis.

Keeping up with the Kennedys: An Elitist History - Fulfilling the Dream

And we lost our faith in the very government we had entrusted to John F.  Kennedy. In him, we had seen the light of a nation. It followed,  necessarily, that the decades after his death would be fundamentally different. We entered a post-Kennedy era. From Nixon’s corruption to  Carter’s naiveté to Clinton’s debauchery to Obama’s “un-Americanness,”  the cultural narratives of this era have been ones of mistrust,  fracture: we hesitate to trust our government to anyone anymore, lest they be representatives of those slimy interests brought to the surface in the years after 1963.

Changed Times

Keeping up with the Kennedys: An Elitist History - Fulfilling the Dream
Picture: Congressman Joe Kennedy III, the grandson of RFK with his family.

Just how well-received would the Kennedy clan be today? We don’t see political dynasties of the same sort anymore, at least, not of the same public presence. In fact, besides the Bush clan, the modern-day Kennedys  (Congressman Joe, Ambassador Caroline), are perhaps the most comparable family to their golden-age progenitors; they’re active in government and non-profits, academia and business, and they have the subtle, yet constant attention of a nation.

No other family has risen to the level of national prominence that the 20th-century  Kennedys achieved; it might be the case that the same mistrust in government which followed the Kennedy assassination extended a mistrust towards all established institutions—church, state, economic, philosophical, or otherwise. And that the death of the president who so engendered our belief that government could do good in the world created such an atmosphere of cynicism and negativity that such a president could never again be elected.

After all, look at how our modern politics treats candidates who are independently wealthy or powerful: as somehow “in cahoots” with powerful economic or political forces that, whether deliberate or not, prey on the American public. Mitt Romney wasn’t a businessman, but a “vulture  capitalist.” It is not only the ideas of the Tea Party we are uncomfortable with but their model: corporate funding and endorsements by syndicated national media. Weren’t these the exact molds of the  Kennedy family, the one that captured the hearts of a ‘post-idealist’  nation? Joseph P. made his money in the industry just like George Romney,  Mitt’s father. Both fathers were involved in politics and raised their children with the expectation that they, too, would give back to the country that had given them so much. Both Kennedy and Romney played down their ancestral success, focusing on their own large families—oodles of kids, plenty of family photos—to highlight just how urgently they could identify with mainstream America.

When Jack Kennedy visited a coal mine in West Virginia—perhaps the most vulnerable area of the country for his campaign, as it was heavily Protestant and very poor—he confessed to a coal miner who was standing in line to shake hands that he hadn’t worked a day of physical labor in his life. The miner smiled and admitted back, “believe me, you haven’t  missed a thing.”

In what universe could that have happened to Romney?

Speaking Truth With Power 

Kennedy’s death established an era of distrust that made this sort of interaction with most politicians of his background impossible, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe mistrusting institutions of wealth and power is healthy for a democracy. Perhaps, though, it gives rise to the exploitative kind of populism that feeds on appealing answers to tough questions, as long as they translate to votes. The kind that gives rise to Ron Paul’s gold standard, or Glenn Beck’s Hollywood-bashing, or even Elizabeth Warren’s frenzied charge on capitalism.

Here lies the contradiction with John Kennedy: he rose to power holding the hands of powerful institutions. Union bosses coordinated his campaigns, Frank Sinatra (mob connections and all) sang at his rallies.  His father bankrolled the 1960 campaign’s infrastructure, and Jack’s cabinet counted among its members, in addition to his own little brother, faculty from the most elite, insulated institutions in the world, Ivy League schools. His career, in every aspect except on TV and in the newspaper, was an extreme of elitism. If he were a candidate now,  he would fail miserably that test that has done in so many candidates of wealth, power, and influence since his death: the pollster’s question to Joe Six-pack, “who better understands your life? Your problems?”

The most important difference between Kennedy’s time and now is not how people would have answered this question, but that it is a question we ask ourselves at all. Does it matter, after all, whether or not a  president understands the struggles of everyday people? FDR grew up in absolute riches; Woodrow Wilson couldn’t read until he was 10. Lincoln worked all his life; Reagan knew the small town of Dixon, Illinois.  There seems to be no meaningful correlation.

And yet, our suspicion of the elites—those huddled in smoky rooms,  plotting against us—has only become stronger. We may never return to a  political era like the one that chose Jack Kennedy as its leader: there are too many viral videographers hoping for the next “47%” comment, or some other tip-off that a politician isn’t really working for us,  The People. We’re left with a timely joke to ponder the differences between then and now, made by Kennedy at a campaign dinner in 1958, “I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

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