The enduring symbol of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the image that defined America’s romance with its heroic young leader and his star-crossed family, came from his widow, Jacqueline, a couple weeks after his assassination.
Struggling to come up with a literary or cultural analogy for their flash of time in the White House, the grieving former first lady settled on a Broadway musical.
“At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records,” she told Life magazine in December 1963, “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 forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
With that, the legend was sealed. The Kennedy administration would thereon be remembered as Camelot, with John the king and Jackie the queen, glamorous symbols of a nation’s wealthy new idealism.
The nation honored JFK's legacy Friday on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Several thousand in Dallas marked the day with a moment of silence and bell-ringing at a ceremony in Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was shot as his motorcade passed through on Nov. 22, 1963. A planned flyover salute and a performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the plaza to honor Kennedy were canceled amid rainy conditions. In Boston the JFK Library and Museum debuted an exhibit featuring never-before-displayed items from Kennedy's funeral, while in Washington President Barack Obama was meeting privately with leaders and volunteers from the Peace Corps, the national service program Kennedy started, The Associated Press reported.
Kennedy's portrait remains indelible, even after revelations of adultery, mob ties and bought elections.
“What is remarkable is how durable this image has been surrounding John F. Kennedy all these decades since,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and author of “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Legacy and Influence of the JFK Presidency.”
America’s adoration of JFK still burns in part because he was cut down so early, at the height of his political and cultural influence. He was the youngest elected president, and the youngest to die. He was also the first president of the television age, and so, thanks to the painstaking curation of his image, he is forever frozen in memory as he was 50 years ago: handsome, charismatic, athletic, virile, inspirational.
“The assassination…converted an impressive but flawed man into a saint—an untouchable saint,” Sabato said.
Kennedy made his share of highly dramatic political decisions—on civil rights, space exploration, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis—but his cultural contributions were, arguably, more lasting.
Much of that has to do with the time and place of Kennedy’s rise. A decorated war hero, Kennedy related with a generation of GIs returning home to a country exploring new financial, educational and technological opportunities; many of these returning troops became the first in their families to attend college. Kennedy became, in a way, their standard-bearer. His high-society, multilingual wife, regarded as an icon of grace and beauty, completed the picture.
“We’re talking about a country that had come out of the war, that controlled the economy of the world. We were rich by any standards in those days, and people didn’t really know how to act,” said journalist Richard Reeves, author of two books on Kennedy. “I think the Kennedys, with their long hair and European-cut suits and languages, were the role models for a new America.”
JFK, who secretly suffered from debilitating ailments and had been given last rites three times before becoming president, approached politics and his personal life with an impatience that seemed indicative of someone who expected to die young. With help from his powerful and wealthy father, Joseph, and his equally ambitious siblings, he took the White House by storm, leapfrogging over the political establishment.
“He lived life as a race against boredom,” Reeves said. “He would not wait his turn. He was the first self-financed, self-created presidential candidate. He had it won before they knew what happened. If you want it, go after it. No one waits their turn now. That was largely because of Kennedy.”
He was also a torrid womanizer, engaging in several well-documented affairs before and during his presidency.
After his death, his wife, family and inner-circle embarked on a campaign to burnish his legacy, which is a big reason why there are so many schools, buildings, streets, plazas and government facilities around the world named after him. No other modern president has enjoyed such treatment, except for maybe Ronald Reagan, Reeves said.
At the same time, the Kennedy family has been struck by a number of tragedies—accidents, illnesses, murder, substance-abuse problems—that gave rise to the notion of a "Kennedy curse.”
Those who believe in such a thing point to a string of events that began before JFK’s assassination: the wartime death of his older brother, Joseph; the botched lobotomy of a sister, Rosemary; the death of another sister, Kathleen, in a plane crash; John and Jackie’s stillborn daughter; and the death of a prematurely born son.
The family misfortunes continued after JFK died. The first was a June 1964 plane crash in which the late president’s youngest brother, Ted, barely survived. In 1968, another brother, Robert, was assassinated as he campaigned for president. A year later, Ted drove a car off a small bridge near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, killing a young woman in the passenger’s seat. Other members of the extended clan have been convicted of murder, suffered cancer, overdosed and died in other horrific ways. That includes JFK’s son, John Jr., who perished while piloting a small plane near Martha’s Vineyard in 1999.
But scholars scoff at the idea of a Kennedy curse. They point out that the family is so large and sprawling that bad things were bound to happen to some of them. Adding to the peril was that many of JFK’s kin lived the way he did: at full speed, at high risk.
The perception of a curse exists because of that Kennedy mystique, which survives unabated to this day. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s death has sprouted another wave of books about him.
Which raises the question: Will the glow over a president who served less than three years ever dull?
Reeves doesn’t think so. If the negative aspects of his presidency and personal life haven’t sufficiently tarnished him, they likely won’t ever, he said.
The main enemy is time. Eventually, the number of Americans who remember watching John and Jackie in the White House — along with the historians and journalists who documented it — will diminish to nothing.
“They are still the king and queen, at least until my generation dies off,” Sabato said. “It will eventually fade into history. And perhaps the view of the Kennedys will become more realistic. But until then, you’re going to continue to focus on the mythology.”