Our drift toward an imperial presidency
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.
It helped that (like Reagan) he was a younger son: Unburdened by the expectations that fall upon a firstborn, he developed an ironical view of life very different from that of his earnest, too obviously ambitious older brother, Joe Jr. Again, like Reagan, he was not, in his younger years, drawn to a political life. His father pushed him into it after the elder brother’s death in the war. “I can feel Pappy’s eyes on the back of my neck,” Jack complained to Navy buddy Paul “Red” Fay at the time. “When the war is over and you are out there in sunny California . . . I’ll be back here with Dad trying to parlay a lost PT boat and a bad back into political advantage. I’ll tell you, Dad is ready right now and can’t understand why Johnny boy isn’t ‘all engines full ahead.’”
The court Kennedy established in Washington after his victory in 1960 is easy to ridicule, and I, like a thousand other writers, have done so. The old preppie-Brahmin social regime in the capital, which dated from the days of William C. Whitney, John Hay, and Henry Adams, had already, in the early Sixties, something of the feel of Parisian society in the days before the Revolution of 1789. The fortunes of Washington’s WASP establishment, with its nucleus in Georgetown, had long been closely tied to the State Department, which in the mid-century bureaucratic bloat had lost its exclusive character. The degeneration of society followed hard upon that of the civil service, and in their desperation the WASP magnificos were only too delighted to have Jack and Jacqueline preside over their last hurrah. Averell Harriman, who in his stiffly magnificent condescension might have been a Whig duke, danced the twist with Mrs. Kennedy in the family quarters of the White House, while Joe Alsop, a lacquered mandarin who had forsaken his calligraphy to pound out a syndicated column, was pleased to find himself received again at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as he had not been since the days when his Roosevelt relations resided there.
“Jackie and the President,” Alsop gushed, “gave occasional small dances at the White House that were as good as any parties I have been to.” Doubtless it was amusing to go through “bottle after bottle of Dom Pérignon” in the president’s company, and to feed at “an enormous gold bucket” of fresh caviar, all the while laughing at the tastelessness of the Eisenhowers. “I can only recall,” Alsop wrote, “the peculiar combination of vomit-green and rose-pink that Mrs. Eisenhower had chosen for her bedroom and bathroom,” something he found almost as appalling as the fact that he had to tell his “cousin Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. that he could not go on calling the President ‘Jack,’ however close they had been in the past — a point he ought have known.” I have, as I said, made mock of this; but had I been alive at the time, and received the invitation, would I have refused it, or gushed less? Probably not.
Jack was a great sinner, like the rest of us, yet in spite of his faults he was a winning human being. (Whether his winning qualities would have survived two terms in the White House, that hothouse in which the more extravagant forms of egotism are routinely bred, must remain a question.) Still, whatever his merits, our fixation on him is unhealthy. I don’t mean by this the trauma he posthumously inflicted on the political class, the tics and psychoses that impelled Gary Hart to stick his hand in his coat pocket at odd times and made John Kerry (stricken by his experience of sailing with Jack on the Manitou) exhibit his own prowess in water sports by taking a turn on his windsurfer in the summer of his nomination for the presidency.
No, the problem with our obsession with Jack goes beyond the vainglory of the less gifted politicians who lamely imitate him. The real difficulty is that the presidency has come to occupy too large a place in our individual psyches, even as the federal nation-state over which the president presides has come to occupy too large a place in our individual lives. The imperial presidency that had its beginnings in the administrations of the first Roosevelt and Wilson has grown up with the imperial state, a noxious weed that is only too likely to culminate in a kind of Caesarian first magistracy, an office very different from the one the Founders envisioned when they drafted the second article of the Constitution.
As the federal government grows ever more potent, local and regional culture diminish apace; we are left only with national power and the national sanctities. Kennedy, who made the slenderest of marks on the policy of the nation, left the greatest impression on its imaginative and mythopoeic life. He had, indeed, an eye for the enchanting symbol. He approved the peculiar logo that is to this day blazoned on the presidential aircraft; he conceived the Medal of Freedom; he laid down the protocols for the pageantry of the modern state visit. What is more, he chose for his mate a brunette of excellent taste who turned the dowdy White House into the most stylish of 20th-century courts, and selected for his (most notable) concubine a platinum blonde who continues to haunt that dream-vision of an America in which Huck Finn, Abe Lincoln, and Betsy Ross (or some such mythical company) are forever laughing and swapping yarns on a raft on the Mississippi.
It is, alas, a spurious dream. The reality from which it diverts us is found in the neighborhoods in which we actually live. Kennedy played a part in this ongoing nationalization of consciousness. He was the first TV president; his cult is as unthinkable without the boob tube as that of Dionysus would be without the grape. And the TV screen, whatever its virtues, is a great leveler of local culture; it is also too much with us. Implanted now in bars, airport lobbies, pizza parlors, elevators, the pumps in the gas station, as well as in our pocket gadgets, the TV screen insensibly draws us into the unnutritive dramas of the nation-state.
It would be too much to say that TV is our modern amphitheater, seducing us with fantasies remote from the sort of solid, traditional, living culture that grows up in particular places among the particular people who live there. But there is more than a whiff, in a TV cult like Kennedy’s, of Roman decadence. Caesar and his heirs beguiled the people not only with bread but also with shows, and the shows not less than the bread eventually got the better of them. Ten years ago Bill Buckley opined that JFK, director and star of one of our most successful national shows, had come to be “worshipped, which word exactly describes the attitude we have toward him.” An ominous development. The Romans, who after the deposition of their kings cherished libertas and the res publica, came in time to put their faith in the saving grace of their master showmen, the deified emperors. Is it possible that we are doing the same?
– Mr. Beran, a lawyer and a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.