Magazine | December 31, 2011, Issue

Tingling for Camelot

That barometer of our jejune times, Chris Matthews’s oh-so-sensitive leg, is all aquiver with a brand new thrill.

Four years ago it was Obama’s oratory that triggered the hot-cold sensations that ignited a near occasion of spin, but Obama no longer has what it takes to be adored by an adolescent boy. Almost from the moment he took office he began losing his bona fides so fast that he seemed to fade, so to speak, into black. Now he seems to be sinking into obscurity before our very eyes. Always thin, he is now skinny and taut, almost spidery, an antihero’s antihero without a shimmering pulsation to bless him.

No prob! Naïve idealism’s Leg Man has found another hero to keep the electrifying crackle surging through his knee pants. He has written a book called Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. I haven’t read it and don’t plan to because I have already read and reviewed so many Kennedy books that they have left me bound and gagging. Besides, it isn’t necessary to read this one because young Christopher does the best oral book reports in class. He has been reciting them everywhere lately, quoting himself verbatim, savoring favorite plummy phrases like “pathfinder and puzzle” and “beacon or conundrum,” and leaning heavily on his leitmotif, “rough and tumble,” because he so wants to believe that Jack Kennedy played hardball too.

I yield to no one in my dislike of any and all things Kennedy. I am put off by the spectacle of the president-as-celebrity, and JFK was the first such for me. My formative years comprised an era when the American presidency still met some version of traditional leadership. In my childhood, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a king; Harry Truman was a small-r republican capable of rising to the level of dignified simplicity that republics ostensibly stand for; and Ike was the classic military leader. I adored Roosevelt and liked Truman. I did not like Ike — too bland beside Patton and MacArthur — but I was okay with Ike because he made basic historical sense, a Cincinnatus who took up golf instead of plowshares but a Cincinnatus just the same.

I was 25 when JFK was inaugurated in 1961. Now, 50 years and many reflections in a jaundiced eye later, I know the reply Dan Quayle needed when Lloyd Bentsen told him, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” What Quayle should have said is, “Jack Kennedy was no Jack Kennedy.”

He was a sickly man in a rocking chair who was scared to death of his father. His style of government-as-psychodrama was reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s five-hour, five-act passion plays about cannibalism as practiced in families so turned in upon themselves that they will eat only their own. The American people saw all this but saw through none of it. The Kennedys were just close-knit, that’s all, and believed in sticking together, but they were independent. Proof? Old Joe said, “I gave each of my children a million dollars so they could tell me to go to hell if they wanted.”

#page#As if. The fear he roused in his children, especially his second son, was, I believe, the cause of the humiliating failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when JFK withdrew the promised air cover at the last minute lest the Soviets take umbrage. He was not only afraid his father would blame him for starting a war, he was also afraid that Old Joe would hate him for not being Joe Junior, the adored eldest son, killed in WWII, who could do no wrong in his father’s eyes. Joe Junior would have pulled off the invasion, the father would have said. JFK may have hated himself for not being Joe Junior, or for being alive at all.

A few months later the same dynamic affected his meeting in Vienna with the ruthless Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev, who was old enough to be his father and therefore had no trouble turning him into mincemeat. (A frightening description of his near-breakdown on Air Force One during the trip home is found in JFK: The Man and the Myth, by Victor Lasky.)

Something must have happened between the foreign-policy disasters of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 to change him into the calm, fearless Cold Warrior that Chris Matthews compares to the Plantagenets. Something did: On Dec. 19, 1961, Old Joe Kennedy had a massive stroke that robbed him of speech and turned him into a shell of his former self.

If Matthews regrets locating his now-famous “thrill” in his lower extremities instead of his spine, researching JFK must have offered proof that his is not the only restless leg on the block. Norman Mailer let himself go when he compared JFK’s complexion to “the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor.” I heard many such comments 50 years ago and they were all from men. I never heard a woman call JFK anything beyond a perfunctory “good-looking.” The same thing happened whenever John Wayne’s name came up. Yes, he had a nice smile, but . . . and then it trailed off, lustless. Lincoln may belong to the ages but Kennedy belongs to men. It must be all that talk about “vigah” and the story about swimming through shark-infested waters with a crewman’s lifebelt strap between his teeth. Now that Frank Rich has signed off on the name, it can be said loud and proud: My man-crush, right or wrong.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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