Saturday, November 23, 2013

Assessing Camelot

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy's body lay all day "in repose" in the East Room of the White House (photo), where the nation's great and important people paid their respects throughout the course of the day. Inevitably, this anniversary weekend invites a reassessment of the Kennedy era. (It won't be long before those of us who remember it are all gone, and the task will be left entirely to historians.)

The early 60s were among the coldest years of the Cold War. Both candidates in 1960, Kennedy and Nixon, were preoccupied principally with foreign policy. During the campaign, Kennedy was arguably the more strident Cold Warrior of the two. That Cold War confrontation permeated Kennedy's stirring Inaugural Address, which was almost entirely about foreign policy. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

The great liberal domestic policy initiatives of the 1960s - Civil Rights, Medicare, etc. - would become LBJ's priorities and be enacted eventually, thanks largely to LBJ's political skill and (in the case of Medicare) the Democratic landslide of 1964. But, at least initially, they were hardly Kennedy's principal political priorities; and in any case he was unable to get such measures through a reluctant and recalcitrant Congress. In retrospect, the Civil Rights revolution may have ultimately been the most important thing going on in the country at the time, but for most of the Kennedy era it was the Cold War that dominated the president's agenda. 

Judged by those standards, Kennedy clearly got off to a rocky start - the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, followed by a far from successful Vienna Summit Meeting with the Soviet Union's combative Nikita Khrushchev, all occurring against the background of the Soviet Union's enormous propaganda triumphs in the space race. (In April, the same moth as the Bay of Pigs, a Soviet cosmonaut became the first man to orbit the earth. Kennedy's ambitious answer - challenging the nation to go to the moon before the end of the decade - was less about science and much more about beating the Russians. And how it inspired the nation! Imagine any contemporary President proposing anything so ambitious or inspiring!).

Later in the summer of 1961, the Berlin Wall went up. Kennedy righty recognized that, as he is supposed to have said, a wall was better than a war. The wall had solved Khrushchev's most pressing problem and made it possible for him to tolerate the continued Western presence in West Berlin. Ceding effective Soviet control over East Berlin, liberated Kennedy to concentrate on defending Western occupation rights in West Berlin. Still, however resolute he sounded, Kennedy seemed weak - a weakness that may have contributed to Khrushchev's dangerous miscalculation in Cuba a year later.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis may indeed have been Kennedy's finest hour. He succeeded in getting the Soviet missiles out of Cuba - a clear win for us, a loss of face for the Soviets. At the same time, however, he practiced heroic restraint - successfully resisting the pressure for a direct attack on Cuba and avoiding the nuclear armageddon that seemed so likely. Undoubtedly, October 1962 was the closest the world ever came to nuclear confrontation. I can well remember how frightened we all were that week!

Kennedy had apparently been much impressed by Barbara Tuchman's account in The Guns of August about Europe's accidental spiral into World War in 1914 and was always wary of the danger of miscalculation - a danger intensified by the presence of nuclear weapons.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Cuban Missile Crisis probably also marked a turning point in popular American attitudes about the feasibility of nuclear warfare. Kennedy's 1963 American University address and even more so the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that summer reflected that evolving sensibility.  

Castro was still in Cuba, but 1963 proved to be the Kennedy presidency's best year. At the time, it was more or less political science conventional wisdom (which Kennedy seemed to confirm) that presidents were most likely to hit their stride and be most successful in their third year - after the fits and starts of the first years and before the next election campaign began. (That was before our contemporary permanent campaign!) The Test Ban Treaty truly was an accomplishment, and 1963 was also the year Kennedy fully embraced the Civil Rights revolution and proposed what would become - under LBJ's more effective leadership - the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Personally also, it appears that Kennedy and his wife were growing closer and happier together that year. Sadly, 1963 was also the year of the personal family tragedy of the birth and death two days later of their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. (That event is etched in my memory because of how Patrick's birth on August 7 and his death on August 9  framed my sister Christine's birth on August 8.)

But 1963 also saw Kennedy's Vietnam commitment start to unravel. The American-supported coup that eliminated South Vietnamese President Diem and his brother on November 1 did not solve the problem. Rather it accelerated South Vietnam's long-term downward spiral. Whether Kennedy might have later changed his course at some point and resolved the growing mess that our involvement in Vietnam was becoming differently from the way Johnson later did is ultimately unknowable and irresolvable. History can only record the policy he bequeathed to his successor and how his successor sought to continue it.

Kennedy won in 1960 in large part because he performed better than Nixon on TV. His was the first presidency of the media age, the first based more on glamor than on substance. But, as reality keeps reminding us, what makes one a media star and gets one elected does not necessarily translate into skill at governing. He was hardly inexperienced politically, but he was evidently not quite ready for prime time when he took office, as the many missteps of that fateful first year demonstrated. But he learned from his mistakes and by 1963 was well on his way to becoming a much more successful president. Like so many other imponderables, what a second Kennedy term might have been like remains forever unknowable.

But the fantasy that things might have gone differently remains a powerful force in my generation's imagination. Jackie Kennedy's post-assassination Camelot myth-making may have always been something of a stretch. Still, that musical that debuted in 1960 did express something of the feel of those early 60s years - the youthful glamor and hopeful excitement that curiously characterized the Kennedy years.

So, once again, after 50 years of mayhem, let it be sung one more time:
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

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