Monday 23 February 2009


In one very important sense, Jack Kennedy was a very lucky man indeed.

A very, very lucky man.

I often wonder what the judgement of history might have been to Tricky Dicky Nixon had an assassin's bullet claimed his life in late 1972. Would history have been different? Not much, I daresay. Only our perception of it. The way we viewed Nixon's presidency would be different. Because now we view it through the prism of Watergate, a prism which perhaps magnifies the failings of his presidency and invalidates his successes. Nixon, we are all agreed, was the worst President there ever was. Well, until Dubya turned up.

If we hadn't got Watergate to remember him by and our lasting images of him were of the wounded President being carried off to die, we would perhaps sing his praises, as the President who committed to ending the Vietnam war. And the President during his tenure the Moon landings happened. He broke the eleventh commandment, and we will remember him forever as a liar, a charlatan and a perjurer.

It is a funny thing about assassinations. Several things seem to happen with them.

Only four American Presidents have ever been assassinated. It's interesting to note that there are no conspiracy theories whatsoever regarding Garfield and McKinley. Perhaps because even most Americans have forgotten them. Their assassinations are memorable only if you're in a pub quiz and the question 'Name all four US Presidents that were assassinated' shows up.

Again, there are no conspiracy theories regarding assassination attempts on Presidents. There are, likewise no conspiracy theories regarding the attempt on the life of John Paul II, numerous ones regarding John Paul I and his sudden mysterious death.

In other words, the more memorable the President is and whether or not the attempt to assassinate succeeds, the more likely the simple explanation is viewed as unlikely. Kennedy was just too important for it to just have been a lone gunman. And yet with Reagan, no one doubts it. Because Reagan didn't die.

It seems to be a recognised phenomenon that psychologically we expect great events to have complex causes. Kennedy's death shook the world. So a lone nutter took a pot shot and got lucky, but no one quite knows why, just isn't the explanation that satisfies. Or that Diana was killed by a drunken chauffeur speeding to evade the paparazzi.
I don't know what to make of the numerous theories regarding his death. The theories have become part of the legend. The Kennedy Dream. That he was killed because he was so close to changing the world for the better. The conspiracy theory allows people to believe that it is the assassins of Kennedy who ruined America. That Camelot was on it's way, that Kennedy's new America was stopped in it's tracks. The hope and optimism of his inauguration cut short and then America plunged into TV screens depicting napalm bombs, agent orange, civil rights protesters being beaten, drugs, generation wars, a nation at war with itself. Had Kennedy lived, it might not have happened.

It is, in my view, a rather pernicious myth. And one I hope history will correct. Not so much because I think it unfairly honours a fraud and a charlatan, but because by giving undeserved greatness to a man because he was murdered before history could judge him fairly, it has deprived a worthier man of the praise he truly deserves. One of the greatest US Presidents of the twentieth century has been dismissed and unrecognised as the great statesmen he was.

Lyndon Johnson.

Let us take a look at what Kennedy MIGHT have been remembered for, had he served as US President until 1969.

Well, we might have better remembered his rather sordid family history. The only real difference between Al Capone and Joe Kennedy was Joe Kennedy didn't have people killed- or at least no one has ever proved he did, so he managed to work his way into respectable society and become US ambassador to Germany. Where he was quite pro-Hitler. So Kennedy was essentially the son of a Pro-Nazi bootlegger. Not, of course, that the sins of the father should affect the son, but Jack Kennedy's death has made the Kennedy family, the name itself, American nobility almost.

Kennedy is remembered for resolving the Cuban missile crisis. Funny that we now glorify him for managing not to get us all blown up and forget it was his fault in the first place things got that far. He launched the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he pretty much let Castro know he wasn't going to give up till US marines had removed Castro and put Batista back, it was his fault therefore if Castro turned to Ideological friends for nukes and it was Kennedy brought it all to a stand off.

So- no marks for Kennedy there. The man almost caused a nuclear war. Had he not been shot, I'm sure that's how it would be clearly stated, all of the time. Rather than this bizarre idea that we should be grateful he wasn't even more inept and somehow see that as a virtue.

Kennedy promised a man on the Moon. And it happened. Of course, Kennedy didn't make that happen. And it has been suggested that Kennedy's stated aim of a man on the Moon by 1970 may not have happened if the American people hadn't treasured it as a way of honouring him. An effort was made to keep to it. But would he himself have managed to keep to it? Or was it all hot air?

The real challenges Kennedy would have faced, had he lived, he never had to. And hence the myth has arisen that he would have handled them better than Johnson did. Not only is there no evidence for this, I believe it's a gross distortion of what the likelihood would have been. Johnson was not a man of fine words and phrases, but he was a man prepared to make tough choices and put people before personal aggrandisement in a way I don't think Kennedy really could.

Johnson is blamed for escalating the war in Vietnam. It is sometimes alleged Kennedy wouldn't have done. I'm not sure why. Kennedy seems, on the basis of the his early presidency to have been quite happy to throw out military threats and send troops in first and engage brain later on. I really don't think he would have been able to escape the desire for military posturing. It could have even have escalated more if Kennedy had lived.

And the civil rights movement. Kennedy was certainly a man for making the right noises on the subject, but I'm not convinced he was as personally committed to it as Johnson was. Johnson actually sympathised with the civil rights movement in a way Kennedy didn't. Johnson made it a priority, I doubt Kennedy would have done. Kennedy would have continued to talk the talk, but would never have walked the walk. He would have lacked the strength of resolve to deal with the racists in his own party, such as George Wallace in Alabama. He'd have tried to be all things to all men and the transition would have happened later, but far less peaceably.

My view is that Johnson left America in a far better position than Kennedy would have left it. Thousands more Americans returned home from Vietnam than might have done had Kennedy lived, thousands more never went. And African Americans gained equal treatment perhaps a decade sooner than they might have done, and without a national situation that could have developed into a South African style state of emergency, all of which, I believe might have come to pass as none of Kennedy's fine words got turned into action and the two faces of JFK were seen to be increasingly at odds with eachother.

By being shot, he escaped being shown up as the all style and no substance con man that he was. And that might sound a hard thing to say about the dead, but all historical figures die and the manner of their death shouldn't entitle even the sinners to sainthood. He wasn't a martyr and his presidency achieved nothing more than the creation of a myth, a fantasy presidency that never happened, but by which all subsequent presidencies would be judged.

It allowed a lucky accident, it caused the unsung, ignored and undervalued presidency of Lyndon Johnson to happen. An amazing stroke of luck that America hasn't got round yet to acknowledging.

So when I see people comparing Obama to Kennedy, I sincerely hope not. Because Kennedy is not the way to follow. What plan is that? Just run as long as you can getting plaudits without doing anything and hope you got shot so no one will notice?

I believe Obama is more than that.

Because we had our version of Kennedy here. Had he been shot after three years, we'd be writing hagiographies of him now. St Tony. Had he lived, we'd never have gone into Iraq. Tony would have stood up to Bush. Tony wouldn't have allowed British citizens to be tortured in Guantanamo Bay. If Tony had been in charge, Britain would be in a better position when the recession struck. Our streets wouldn't be filled with gangs of youths knifing eachother because Tony promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Education would have got better, hospital waiting lists gone down, it would all have happened had Tony lived.

Only he did live, and we know it didn't.

Somewhere, perhaps, is an alternate universe right now where a blogger just like me exists, writing a post on just how unfair it is that Nixon is held up as the greatest American President ever, just because he managed to get shot. That actually, Nixon was a bit dodgy, that really, Nixon is lucky he got assassinated, because otherwise he could even be remembered by history as being ALMOST as useless as that smarmy geriatric with his face fixed in a permanent plastic surgeon's grin, the former US President from 1961 to 1969, renowned for the sex scandals that plagued the latter part of his second term and for the American loss of National pride that took place under his term of office.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


Fusion said...

Yes, the what if's of American politics...

I read a book several years ago rating the US Presidents, Kennedy was quite a ways down that list. Never been a fan of, or understood the fasination with the Kennedy Family here in the US. Sad that Teddy has a brain tumor, but I have never liked him. He's a man of no character at all.

I have wonder too how different the Presidential line might look today, had Kennedy lived...

Good post Crushed!

Crushed said...

Fusion- I think it's interesting how many of the better ones were VPs to begin with Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson.

Modern day Borgias, perhaps, the Kennedy family?

Would Clinton have won had Kennedy lived? There's no denying part of his appeal was he reminded people of Kennedy. If Kennedy had lived, that might not have been such an asset.