Saturday, November 23, 2013

Kennedy, Camelot and the danger of myth

"I just can't see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man's terrible."
Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking in the months after her husband's assassination.

Over at the Monkey Cage, there's a political science take on the anniversary of the assassination (Why so many Americans believe Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories). It makes some interesting points but I have a somewhat different take.

As we've talked about before, if there's an idea that fits in with pre-existing beliefs (particularly one which alleviates cognitive dissonance) and which is aesthetically attractive, people will tend to favor that idea over better supported but less appealing alternatives.

The Sixties are a period that inspire intensely conflicting emotions, particularly among boomers, often producing great cognitive dissonance and there is probably no more resonant myth than that of a lost golden age (with loss due to betrayal being a particularly popular variant). In the case of John F. Kennedy, the Camelot allusions started almost immediately after the assassination and Johnson was soon identified with one of the most mythic of betrayers. (The use of conspiracy theories to delegitimize presidencies is, of course, not limited to LBJ.)

The power of these loss myths obviously rely on the counterfactual leading to a happy place. (if Orpheus and Eurydice were headed for a miserable marriage, the story isn't nearly as effective.) In the case of JFK, for many Democrats and boomers (particularly boomers who had been draft eligible), this basically means the great society without the escalation in Vietnam.

As for the latter, there is certainly evidence that Kennedy was seriously considering getting out, having come to suspect that the war was a lost cause, but every president from Ike through Nixon saw Vietnam as problematic, but every administration got us in deeper. Wars have a long history of being easier to get into than out of. Add to that JFK's commitment to fighting communism (particularly in Latin America and, because nothing ever changes, Iraq) and you can see how certain historians take this position:
Patricia Limerick, a University of Colorado history professor who heads the school's Center of the American West, doubts Kennedy would have backed off from U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The policy of communist containment was too ingrained in him.

"That was one Cold Warrior, that Kennedy," Limerick said. "He gave so much momentum to Vietnam. Cold War thinking was such a powerful arranger of brain cells of people of a certain age at that time."

The domino theory — the notion that communist expansion would continue unless directly confronted — drove decisions. Even the race to the moon was a direct competition with the Soviet Union.

"So I don't know any reason to think that foreign policy would have evolved," Limerick said. "Lyndon Johnson inherited a rat's nest, and we all know who he inherited it from."
How about domestic (and extraterrestrial) policy? Kennedy had laid out an ambitious "New Frontier" agenda but outside of research the progress had struck many observers at the time as somewhat slow, particularly on the social justice side. It's not entirely clear why that would have changed. Even when it came to Apollo, Johnson had been pushing the space race as early as the late Fifties and was, if anything, more dedicated to the issue than was Kennedy.

Of course, the cause where the difference is sharpest is civil rights. While Kennedy was certainly progressive on these issues, they were not a priority. Furthermore, there was considerable emotional distance between the Kennedys and the leaders of the civil rights movement, most notably Martin Luther King who was not even invited to JFK's funeral.

By comparison:
By this time in January 1965, Johnson had already driven through Congress the most important civil rights legislation since emancipation. Now, he told King, their work was only beginning. When Congress reconvened, he intended to introduce a voting rights bill, one that would bring justice to the segregated South, creating a vast new pool of loyal Democratic voters even as it would surely alienate multitudes of whites. ''The president and the civil rights leader -- the politician and the preacher -- were bouncing ideas off each other like two old allies in a campaign strategy huddle, excited about achieving their dreams for a more just society,'' Nick Kotz writes in his narrative history of the two men's alliance. ''As always,'' he continues, ''Johnson did most of the talking. As always, King was polite and deferential to the new president. But there was a shared sense of new possibilities, new opportunities for cooperation to bring about historic change.'' This carefully etched scene serves complementary purposes. It captures Johnson and King at the apex of their collaboration, a snapshot of an optimistic peak that only magnifies the friction and tragedy to come.
The standard response to the Kennedy-King antipathy has generally been to blame J. Edgar Hoover ("Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John and Jacqueline, said her mother's comments about King are evidence of the 'poisonous' activities Hoover was engaged in, as he ruled the FBI as his private fiefdom."), but as appealing as this is from a psychological standpoint (the "bad council" excuse is often used to alleviate cognitive dissonance), there are at least a couple of problems with this explanation.

For starters, Hoover had constructed his empire in large part by being able to sense both what presidents needed to know and wanted to hear. Here's Tim Weiner, author of "Enemies: A History of the FBI."
GROSS: So did Hoover kind of make a lifelong practice of using his wiretapping to spy on people he perceived as his enemies in government?

WEINER: Well, that's correct, but he also was very well-attuned to what presidents wanted to hear. President Eisenhower wanted to hear about the communist threat. President Johnson wanted to know about the Ku Klux Klan, and despite his lifelong predilection for opposing integration, Hoover did as the president ordered. He was very sensitive to the needs of presidents.
More importantly, Johnson had heard the same FBI reports that Kennedy had but they had no apparent effect on his attitude toward King, though they may have shaped his feeling toward Hoover. ("It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.")

In other words, the golden age story here assumes that Kennedy was about to change direction on the two defining issues of the decade -- Vietnam and civil rights -- and that he was going to change in the right direction (right according to the belief system of those who tend to hold most tightly to the Camelot myth). This could well have happened during a second Kennedy term. Or we could have had withdrawal from Vietnam but no Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, or Voting Rights Act. We might have even stayed in Vietnam and lost all of those programs.

Myths of golden ages and the loss of innocence are tremendously appealing in large part because they let us avoid facing the way things really are. With all due respect to JFK (who was, in many ways a great man), maybe it's time to let this one go.

1 comment:

  1. Counterfactuals about real people are always challenging. It is easy to argue all sorts of interesting possibilities in the absence of evidence. But it is natural to think positive things about a charismatic and liberal president killed in his prime.