Biography of John F. Kennedy: How Author Depictions Have Changed Through Years
By Don Lee
Kennedy’s depiction in history has changed for the worse, and occasionally the better, through the years. Each biography about the popular president seems to present new information about his life.
The “Camelot” image was the capstone of the Kennedy family’s assiduous management of its public image. Jacqueline Kennedy put the word to the idea in the wake of her husband’s death in Dallas, and his closest advisers and confidants were eager to make that image last as long as possible.
As Mark Ambinder wrote in The Week, during 2013’s run-up to the 50th anniversary of the assassination, writers such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Ted Sorensen were crafting not only their own takes on history, but “the basic textbook for figuring out how the Kennedy family wanted JFK to be viewed by history.”
Chief among those was Schlesinger, whose 1965 memoir, “1,000 Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, was called by Ambinder “thorough and largely accurate ... (but) not remotely critical.”
Schlesinger tried hard to hold onto the rosy view of Kennedy in the foreword to the 2002 re-issue of his book: “Revisionism, it should be said, did not affect popular admiration of Kennedy. Ordinary Americans remembered a strong and stirring president who ... tapped the republic’s latent idealism and infused a generation with a passion for public service.”
So carefully was the picture managed that journalists and historians who dug up the dirt could not reconcile the new picture with the one that would not let go.
And the Kennedys saw to that. Writers have alleged that they pressured people not to write, or publishers to not publish, or campaigned to get less-than-laudatory bits trimmed from published pieces. When James MacGregor Burns wrote “John Kennedy: A Political Profile” with Kennedy’s cooperation in 1959, Kennedy was “furious” at the result, which the Wall Street Journal called an “astute, clear-eyed biography of the future president.”
As with most celebrities, untimely death only magnified the positives of Kennedy’s reputation.
“His death is part of the answer. We want to know what he might have done,” Ambinder wrote. Indeed, the first book to look at Kennedy with less than admiration – Victor Lasky’s 1963 “The Man and the Myth” – was pulled from print after the assassination, though it was reissued three years later with new material.
As public opinion swung away from the Vietnam War, the Kennedys’ control over their image slipped, and critics of the Democratic Party became more pointed and vociferous; JFK’s public image got seamier.
Then, too, came the question of whether JFK’s character affected the decisions he made as president – a question explored in books such as Seymour Hersh’s “The Dark Side of Camelot” (1997) and Thomas Reeves’s “A Question of Character” (1991).
“Jack and Bobby Kennedy also learned from their father and grandfather that – as Kennedys – they could enjoy freedoms denied to other men; the consequences of their acts were for others to worry about,” Hersh wrote.
And the peccadilloes of politicians only fed the fire, as Mimi Alford found out when her four-decade-old secret involvement with JFK finally came to light, writing in her own book about the affair: “The Monica Lewinsky scandal, which had nearly brought down the Clinton Administration five years earlier, had stoked the public’s interest for salacious details about the sex lives of our leaders.