Whatever bargain Joe Kennedy struck with the devil, the expiation of it was cruel. The poor man was forced to watch his three gifted boys precede him to the grave, and left to die in the knowledge that Ted would succeed him as head of the house.
Give Joe this much. It is not every guy whom the devil finds it worth his while to tempt with gifts of fame, fortune, and a dynastic legacy. Yet those of us whose humbler stations in life testify to our having been passed over in the diabolic sweepstakes have our ungenerous consolation; few things are more satisfying to us than the spectacle of the Theban sufferings of folk like the Kennedys.
It’s nothing new. The sight of the great ones of the earth in extremis has ever soothed the passions of the little people. In the Periclean heyday of Athens the populace rejoiced, through the vicarious medium of the theater, in the gore that oozed from the palaces of Oedipus and Agamemnon. In 17th-century London the citizens imbrued themselves, figuratively and imaginatively, in the blood of Macbeth’s Glamis and Hamlet’s Elsinore.
In America we have the tabloid media, which dexterously foment the gloomy passions of envy and revenge; so prompt, indeed, are the purveyors of schadenfreude that scarcely a week passes in which we are not treated to the destruction of some high-flier or other, an exhibition we as a rule take in with a most complacent glee.
Yet after all the revelations of his deceptions, his errors of policy, and his dissipated private life, Jack Kennedy remains one of our national darlings; a recent poll found him to be the most highly rated president of the past half century. What gives?
That he was murdered in the prime of life has of course something to do with it. In letters and diaries of the early Sixties we can trace the softening of feeling toward him that followed the assassination. “About Kennedy: I think you somewhat overrate his literacy,” Edmund Wilson wrote to Alfred Kazin in March 1961. “His historical allusions are likely to be inaccurate in a way which suggests he cannot really have read much history. I suspect that his pretensions to ‘culture’ are largely worked up by Arthur Schlesinger.” But the note of condescension in Wilson’s attitude towards Kennedy is muted after Dallas, and he praised the dead president for having done “his best to establish an enlightened administration and to work for tax reduction, civil rights for the Negroes and a peaceful settlement with Russia.”
Yet Garfield and McKinley were also murdered, and neither became an object of adoration in the way Jack Kennedy has. Lincoln after his assassination did inspire an intense popular devotion, but he was by any standard an important — indeed a great — president, something that cannot be said of Kennedy.
Bill Buckley came closer to the heart of the matter when he argued that what accounts for Jack’s grip on us “is his sheer . . . beauty.” Yet the thought requires qualification. Certainly Kennedy was, as Buckley said, an “all-American” fellow who was “splendid to look at.” But very handsome men are not infrequently off-putting. Some are blockheads, their good looks having made things so easy for them that they have failed to develop other aspects of an attractive personality, such as a sense of humor. In others handsomeness breeds arrogance and hauteur, as it did in John Lindsay. Buckley recognized this, and in his attempt to characterize Kennedy’s fascination he dwelt not simply on the man’s physical appearance but on the “confident joy in life and work” that he radiated, and that “transfigured” the world around him.
We speak loosely of the mysterious springs of personal appeal that distinguish a leader as his “charisma,” but the lazy word obscures all the subtler shades of human charm. Rose Kennedy said of Franklin Roosevelt that he was the most charming man she ever knew; Churchill compared meeting him to opening his first bottle of champagne. But Roosevelt had a mean streak in him quite foreign to Kennedy. Again, Ronald Reagan’s personality brightened the nation; but he was a more private man than Kennedy, and harder to know. One would be startled to find an associate of Reagan’s speaking of him, as Byron “Whizzer” White spoke of Kennedy, as “the most fun-producing man” he had ever encountered; yet millions of people who never knew Kennedy personally understand exactly what Mr. Justice White meant.