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The fascination for Theodore H. White's notion of Camelot and the Kennedy mystique has never waned
The fascination for Theodore H. White's notion of Camelot and the Kennedy mystique has never waned
The Kennedy Chieftans and American Politics
Aug 1, 2004
A MONTH after John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Theodore H. White, prize-winning author of The Making of the President books, convinced skeptical Life Magazine editors that Camelot, 'that once peculiar spot' where Arthurian chivalry was hatched and honed, had been symbolically restored. White's notion that the Kennedy years - those halcyon thousand days - had so transformed and invigorated the nation with contagious exuberance and an insistent call to public service, that the promise of a second Camelot had been realized.
After all, Kennedy's oft-quoted challenge - 'Ask not what your country can do for you' - revved a latent New Frontier missionary spirit into action. Everything seemed possible in a land where an Arthur look-alike raised the banner and dared a nation to greatness. In true Shavian spirit, Kennedy passed the gauntlet: 'Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not'. It was as if some prophetic force had been unleashed in the land. The popular response was overwhelming.
'For that one brief shining moment' Camelot materialized. Merlin worked magic, and a legion of Arthur, Guinevere, and Galahad wannabes in modern dress converged on Washington to work magic of their own. A hundred and twenty thousand Peace Corps volunteers, caught in the fervour of the moment, answered a call to humanitarian service in distant Third World countries, a tradition that continues today ( see Jason Mosley's article on page 97 below). And, JFK proclaimed, 'Let the word go out from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans'.
Henceforth virtue and good works would be their own rewards. Evil would be forever banished. 'In that one brief shining moment', the idealism of Camelot was revived. 'Camelot' was frequently mentioned because a Broadway musical of that title opened in New York the month after Kennedy's election.
In a 1964 New York Times piece, James Reston said of John F. Kennedy: 'He was a story-book President, younger and more handsome than mortal politicians, remote even from his friends, graceful, almost elegant with poetry on his tongue and a radiant young woman at his side'. Reston not only bought into White's image of a heroically martyred President, even Jackie, the 'radiant young woman at his side', allowed White's vision of JFK as charismatic chieftain attended by champions imbued with generosity of spirit and nobility of purpose.
The Kennedys were, after all, the American royals living the American dream - the sons energetic, idealistic young men with attractive wives, surrounded by romping children and attentive grandparents; the daughters bright, spirited young women with promise of their own. Hyannis was Camelot, and the Kennedy mythos was firmly established in the American psyche.
White's Once and Future King' played well to an adoring public. A decade later the vision would be modified to reflect the glories of a bygone era, and the tragedies of interrupted lives and unfulfilled destinies. Despite revelations of JFK's indiscretions and questionable alliances and subsequent trespasses by the clan, White's Camelot vision has endured, perhaps a tad tarnished, but nonetheless intact. It has survived because it appeals to the popular imagination, and because, in the grand Celtic scheme, there is still abiding loyalty to a Kennedy myth that transcends the imperfections.
As long as Americans embrace democratic ideals and breed heroes to champion them, the Camelot analogy will not go away. And, the Camelot factor - that Kennedy-inspired Utopian idealism that infuses hope and promise - will continue as a pervasive force in American life and American politics.
A Celtic Consciousness
There were, of course, Kennedy detractors who railed at White's exercise in Celtic myth-making, but there were others who saw the Camelot imagery as a redaction of an ancient mindset that refused to quit. As far-fetched as it seems, White had not sinned against the Arthur legend, he simply had not taken it far enough.
Boston-Irish Fitzgerald and Kennedy ancestors had, after all, inherited and passed on millennia-old Celtic tribal values and traditions rooted in family and kinship. And, the immigrant Kennedys, who were, remember, Irish on both sides, entered the world with a sure sense of an Irish past. J.F.K. once confessed, 'All of us of Irish descent are bound together by ties that come from a common experience; experience which may exist only in memories and legends but which is real enough to those who possess it'.
Granted, Camelot was not Tara, where the ancient Irish High Kings raised their standards, but it was nonetheless Celtic in its orientation and its psyche. It was close enough. Rose Kennedy, the matriarch 'king-maker', once explained, The Irish had their local chieftains, who often warred against one another for fancied glory and advantages for themselves and their followers. They made unstable alliances that could find one year's ally another year's foe. Yet they produced especially strong leaders, superchieftains who reigned as kings over large regions, in turn allying and defecting and forming new constellations as the winds blew'.
Rose Fitzgerald knew the drill. The Irish-American Fitzgeralds and Kennedys had produced their own local chieftains - her father 'Honey Fitz' was a colourful Boston mayor and Congressman; her father-in-law PJ. Kennedy, a popular Boston ward healer. When in 1914 Rose Fitzgerald married Joseph Kennedy, a financial genius with strong presidential aspirations, a new constellation was in the making.
Ioe Kennedy invested in banks, stocks, real estate, Hollywood films, and liquor distribution, amassing a sizable fortune, and used his wealth to underwrite Catholic and Democratic causes. An Irish Catholic with a Harvard degree, he had jousted with the Brahmins and bested them. he brokered deals that won him FDR's confidence and a succession of government appointments: Chairman of the security and Exchange Commission, Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London. Though he lobbied for a Cabinet post in the Roosevelt Administration, he accepted the prestigious ambassadorship to Great Britain as a potential stepping stone to the American presidency.
But fate ruled otherwise.
An outspoken critic of Britain's entry into the Hitler War, Joe Kennedy crossed swords with Churchill and lost credibility in Britain, returning Stateside in 1940. By the time the U.S. had declared war, the Roosevelt courtship had ended, and the writing was large on the wall. 'Ambassador' Kennedy had made a wrong call. The presidency was out of reach.
Still, no Irish American had risen in the ranks or built the alliances that Joe Kennedy had. If he was to be denied the presidency, he was determined that his son and namesake would not. he returned to Hyannis and began scripting the plot for his eldest son's ascendancy. Tragically Joe Kennedy, Jr., a Navy pilot, died in a wartime mission over Germany.
The Politics of the Tribe
The Kennedys grieved their lost son and brother - a bright, handsome young man with political ambitions destined for greatness. His death was a numbing blow, but Joe Kennedy refused to lie down. It was now a matter of Jack donning the chieftain's mantle and carrying on. I got Jack into politics - I was the one. I told him Joe was dead and that it was therefore his responsibility to run for Congress'. That JFK stepped up to claim the standard of his fallen brother was not only gallant and romantic - it was the stuff of legend.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harvard historian and White House aide, reflected, There was perhaps something very Irish about it all - the loyalty to family, the irony and self-mockery, the mingling of romantic defiance with a deep sadness'. Joe Kennedy opened the door, but Jack entered a willing participant. Writer, war-hero, and historian, he was to politics born. he was dashing and witty and intellectual, an Anglophile Harvard graduate with a penchant for reading British authors - from James Buchan to James Bond - he was a new breed of Irish 'pol'.
Descended from Irish ward bosses and a well-healed father who rallied the clan and orchestrated aggressive campaigns, JFK battled his way through Congress and into the White House, the only Irish Catholic ever to do so. he was, from the start, presidential and charming, his wife regal, their children darling. And, the Kennedys' endless entourage of parents and brothers and sisters and in-laws, swept in and out of D.C. igniting a kind of Celtic renaissance of their own. The Fitzgerald-Kennedy dynasty had arrived. Paradise had been gained, Camelot restored, the day won for the Irish.
Yankee poet Robert Frost, playing to the Inauguration gallery, rasped this admonition to the President: 'You are Harvard and you are Irish, but I tell you, be more Irish than Harvard'. Whether Frost was high on the Irish or down on the Brahmins or simply caught in 'the Celtic rays' is perhaps less important than his awareness that 'the indomitable Irishry' had arrived en masse to celebrate the coronation of a superchieftain. Frost proclaimed 'a Golden Age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday's the beginning hour'.
The very p\resence of the Laureate at the inaugural harkened back to antiquity and to sacred investitures of Irish kings, where poets, from a place of honour, dispensed the wisdom of the tribe. And Schlesinger comments, 'Irishness remained a vital element in his constitution. It came out in so many ways - in the quizzical wit, the eruptions of boisterous humour, the relish for politics, the love of language, the romantic sense of history, the admiration for physical daring, the toughness, the joy in living, the view of life as comedy, as tragedy'.
The greening of Washington had begun. By the time the flags of Camelot were furled three years later, the President, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Whip, and the Chairman of the National Committee were Catholic Democrats of Irish descent.
Kennedy was, however, his own man, and his agenda was at times out of sync with that of neighbourhood and parish. A Catholic liberal, he ran on separation of church and state and pursued progressive reforms too radical for upwardly-mobile Irish Americans and a conservative Church. Clearly, the values and politics of the tribe were shifting. No longer a rabblement seeking Brahmin acceptance, many Irish had over-acculturated; they had abandoned cities for suburbs and traded an inheritance for a stake in the corporate dream.
Dynasty and Succession
JFK's assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, shocked the world. The visionary young president, who had renewed the spirit of the nation and dedicated his administration to heady principles and ideals, was dead. There was a terrifying sense of loss, of dread, of promise unfulfilled. Kennedy's philosophy of inclusion, embodied in A Nation of Immigrants; his admiration for heroics under duress, exemplified in the short biographies of famous Senators in Profiles in Courage, were, in a sense, his profession of faith. he had stood against the challenges of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis; and he had championed human rights and civil rights.
His code, defined in those actions and writings, gave rise to a new kind of chivalry.
But JFK was dead. The country had lost its charismatic leader, the clan its chieftain. The country would publicly mourn him, but the clan would wake him and bury him and sing him sad songs. Brothers Bobby and Ted would invoke Kennedy kinship and carry on with characteristic stoicism and resilience; there was, after all, a legacy to continue. Ted Kennedy, the youngest and the Senator from Massachusetts, reflected, 'Let them say what they want about our people and we have many faults - they cannot say that we are not loyal to our chieftain'.
There would be a hiatus before Bobby Kennedy, Joe and Rose Kennedy's third son, JFK's Attorney General, the Senator from New York, would declare his candidacy for the American presidency. It was, in fact, St. Patrick's Day 1968 when RFK announced and began an uphill battle that would end in a second Kennedy assassination.
Robert was his brother's keeper and confidant; he shared JFK's humanitarian vision and moved his agenda with skill and efficiency. he was a moralist and a fighter. Thomas Maier, author of a well documented history of the clan, called him, 'a tribune for the underclass', and he was that. But, shot down in the prime of life, he would never don the chieftain's mantel. Another martyrdom, another wake, another burial.
Ted Kennedy, last of Joe and Rose's sons, eulogized Bobby this way: 'My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. he should be remembered as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it'. After Bobby's burial, Ted would return to the Senate: '. . . there is no safety in hiding, so today, I resume my public responsibilities to the people of Massachusetts. Like my three brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard. Sustained by the memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, to excellence, to courage that distinguished their lives'.
Ted understood the risks of public life, though he rejected the notion of a Kennedy curse. These assassinations were, he reasoned, deliberate acts of desperate men, not something preordained.
A year later there was the horror of Chappaquiddick, a tragic incident that would claim a young woman's life and dash Ted's chance for a run at the presidency. In 1980, though he challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, it was clear that the spectre of that fateful night would forever haunt him. The dynasty had been thwarted, yet the Camelot factor - that contagious, nearly manic optimism that drove the Kennedys to energize the nation and press on - continued to affect American life as a dynamic spirit of political renewal.
Through decades of congressional in-fighting, Ted Kennedy, perhaps the most Irish of the clan, resolved to stay the course. Refusing to compromise on issues at the heart of liberalism and democracy, he championed old tribal causes - on the domestic front, it was education, immigration, health care, poverty, and homelessness; on the international, Third World reforms to alleviate hunger and distress. If Irish Americans, in their rush to money and power, had left compassion on the steps of their ghetto tenements, Kennedy's commitment to improving the plight of the working class, of immigrants and minorities would remain strong.
Ted Kennedy recalled his grandfather Honey Fitz's graphic accounts of Famine refugees, including his own grandparents, crowding into the Boston slums. he remembered the old man's harrowing tales of suffering and sacrifice, of endless relief lines to beg a loaf or win a slave-wage labouring job. Jack wrote legislation to abolish quota immigration, but it was Ted who ushered the bills through the Senate.
And Irishness was never out of Ted's mind. While he opposed IRA and Loyalist violence, he vigorously promoted the cause of his sister Jean Kennedy Smith as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, petitioned Bill Clinton to grant Gerry Adams a visa, and actively supported the Good Friday Agreement that led to a peace in Northern Ireland. Over vehement protests of the British, Ted held his ground and kept the dream alive.
In forty-two years in the Senate, he would, as a tireless advocate for the underprivileged, remain true to kinship and ideals. he would distinguish himself as a powerful legislative force, rising to prominence as Senate Majority Leader, voice of the Democratic Left, and conscience of the Congress. Bill Clinton said of him: 'Whatever I have accomplished as President, so much of it would never have been possible if Ted Kennedy wasn't there every single step of the way'.
Though Ted stands undisputed heir to the Camelot legacy, the road to the grail has had its pitfalls. After all, young Joe was dead at twenty-nine in World War II, and Jack and Bobby were felled in their forties by gunmen's bullets. Kathleen, who became Marchioness of Hartington, died a war widow at twenty-eight in a plane crash, and Rosemary, born with a mental disability, was eventually institutionalized. As a family the Kennedys were betimes 'unlucky', even if they bore their crosses well, and Rose Kennedy would reflect, '... we go on our way with no regrets from the past, not looking backward to the past, but we shall carry on with courage'.
Ted, now paterfamilias to the ill-starred clan, shouldered the adversities and persevered through his own son's bout with cancer, a painful divorce, and yet another round of deaths - Robert's sons David and Michael in 1984 and 1997 and JFK's John junior in 1999. Taken in the prime of life, they were hard deaths. In eulogizing John junior, Ted Kennedy was, in a way, lamenting the deaths of all these sons of Camelot: 'He had a legacy and he learned to treasure it. He was part of a legend, and he learned to live with it'. Indeed, it was as he said, the Kennedy men and women of the younger generation had 'great promise of things to come'; they would by sheer force of character and number, rekindle the flame and coax the phoenix from the ashes.
New Chieftains, Old Visions
Clearly Camelot lives on in the new generation of Kennedys. In addition to Jean Kennedy Smith's recent distinguished tenure as Ambassador to Ireland, Robert's son Joe Kennedy II represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House from 1987 to 9 1999 before returning to the non-profit Citizen's Energy Corporation he founded. His sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a very active Governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003, and Ted Kennedy's son Patrick has, since 1988, served Rhode Island as State Representative and U.S. Congressman. The call to public service still resonates with the clan. The flourish of Camelot, the fervour of the reforms championed by Kennedys for more than a half-century, carry into American political life to the present day.
The torch has been passed.
And Ted Kennedy, with the righteousness of a zealot, has allied himself to John Kerry, fellow Senate Democrat from Massachusetts and a progressive liberal, who shares the convictions of the tribe. In an effort to recapture the presidency, reverse the conservative momentum of the country, and restore a vision that, in former times, gave America undisputed claim to the moral high ground, the Kennedy- Kerry alliance moves inexorably back toward the White House. In the current U.S. presidential election countdown, the Kerry-Edwards ticket not only has Ted Kennedy's imprimatur, the full force of clan Kennedy has risen up to do battle against the Bush dynasty.
In fact, the fascination for Theodore H. White's notion of Camelot and the Kennedy mystique has never waned. Laurence Learner's Sons of Camelot: the Fate of an American Dynasty and Sally Bedell- Smith's Power and Glory, the latest of scores of books and documentaries barkening back to Arthurian imagery and the virtuous deeds of the chi\valrous President and his blood, tout the promise of the clan.
In the Irish mode of tanistry, where chieftains are born and made, and fantasy often turns to reality, there is still the dream of a Kennedy succession - of a man or woman the likes of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend or her brother Joe Kennedy or Patrick Kennedy or another of the kin stepping up to size up Excalibur and challenge the nation to keep the faith, to resurrect the vision of yet another Golden Age.
Copyright Contemporary Review Company Limited Aug 2004
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.