Debunkery—and Plain Bunk

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In November of 1962, I was living on Pinckney Street at the top of Beacon Hill in Boston, and when, on election day, I learned that John F. Kennedy and his wife were to cast their votes at the polls just around the corner, I decided to join the cheerful throng waiting there to have a look at them.

It was a predominantly Irish crowd—elderly women, some clasping cameras; hangers-on from the nearby State House; small children and their mothers; red-faced policemen—all as eager as I to see the local boy who had made good so spectacularly.

The street on which we waited was narrow, the sidewalks were tightly packed, and here and there in the crowd a tall, well-tailored man with an earplug impassively scanned the roofs and windows overhead. The presidential party was well over an hour late, so late that my pregnant wife got tired of waiting and went home. I stayed on, and as I waited, I noticed a strange, skinny man near the door to the polling station. His matted hair stood on end. He wore a dark suit, shiny with dirt, and a stained shirt several sizes too big. But it was his manner that alarmed me: He was mumbling to himself, sometimes chuckling at jokes only he could hear, always smirking with the secret knowledge of the mad. He looked dangerous, and I vowed to keep my eye on him.

I forgot my melodramatic vow, of course, the moment I heard the sirens. The President was coming at last. A Secret Service limousine rounded the corner and slid to a stop, more agents boiling out of its doors as the President’s car pulled in behind it. The doors of the second car opened, and there they were: Kennedy, tanned and apparently fit, tucking his tie into his jacket, smiling and nodding at the cheering crowd; his wife smiling more shyly, one hand to her hair, then following him inside.

The crowd talked of how wonderful they looked. “Bless him,” one older woman said. “She’s just beautiful, too beautiful,” said another. Everyone laughed fondly at a third woman who said she’d simply been too overwhelmed to take a picture. “Get ready, get ready, now,” her husband said as the Kennedys appeared again in the doorway and another cheer went up, but the woman was still so transfixed that she could not raise her camera.

The Kennedys stepped into their car.

As they did so, the smirking man lunged out of the crowd, shouting something with such violence that spittle flew from his mouth. He hurled himself onto the car and managed to get his head all the way into the rear window before a beefy policeman pulled him off and the car pulled away. The policeman shoved him along the sidewalk. Still smiling and talking to himself, the man lurched toward the corner and disappeared.

It’s a little embarrassing now to remember the avidity with which I insisted on simply seeing a President almost thirty years ago; certainly no President since has ever stirred in me the same excitement, the same sense that anything was possible, that America might really be as good a place as Americans had always said it was. And Kennedy’s murder at the hands of another madman the following November froze that feeling for and for millions of other Americans for years.

But time and history have worked their inevitable will on Kennedy’s reputation. We know now that much of the rhetoric that stirred us then was hollow; that even the relatively few triumphs granted to Kennedy before his death—most notably the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba—were less clear-cut than we’d been led to believe; and that there was a squalid underside, both to his administration and to his own private life.

In A Question of Character (Free Press, $24.95), Professor Thomas C. Reeves focuses his censorious eye on that private life to the exclusion of almost everything else. In his bestknown earlier book, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (Stein and Day, 1982), Reeves evinced a good deal of sympathy for his subject. McCarthy was “extraordinary and tragic,” he wrote then; he was not “the grave threat to the Constitution and the nation he has seemed to some to be.” But he has precious little sympathy for John Kennedy. Although he claims to have read “deeply in the primary as well as secondary sources,” his new study is primarily a snip-and-paste job; apart from a smattering of interviews and excerpts from oral histories, it is a compilation of the most unsavory stories about the Kennedys he could glean from books and magazine articles whose truth or falsity he has evidently made no independent effort to assess. There is not a single revelation in it, and after a time the unrelenting piling on of character flaws fails to convince. According to Professor Reeves, John Kennedy was simultaneously reckless and overcautious; indolent and driven to succeed; the helpless instrument of his father’s driven ambition and a tireless, conscienceless self-promoter. He was a compulsive womanizer, an inept commander, an amphetamine addict, a hypocrite, a liar, “pragmatic to the point of amorality; his sole standard seemed to be political expendiency,” the author writes; he “lacked a moral center, a reference point beyond self-aggrandizement.”

To do Professor Reeves justice, his aim in writing A Question of Character was less to provide a fair-minded biography than to demonstrate that “Good character is an essential framework for the complex mixture of qualities that make an outstanding President and a model leader for a democratic people” and that John Kennedy miserably failed that test. But surely such outstanding Presidents as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have scored poorly on that test too, while it seems safe to say that the apparently blameless private lives of, say, Rutherford B. Hayes and Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter did not ensure their becoming model leaders. Politics remains a tough business in which virtue alone is rarely rewarded. Many, perhaps most, of Reeves’s charges may be accurate, but Kennedy, like any man in any walk of life, was made up of more than the sum of his weaknesses.

Because of the revelations of tawdriness made by more enterprising writers than Professor Reeves, were Kennedy somehow to reappear around my corner today, I might not be willing to wait quite so long to see him as I was twenty-nine years ago. But I’d be out there, at least for a while.

The much discussed exhibition “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier” has closed at the National Museum of American Art, but the handsome exhibition catalogue (National Museum of American Art; $60 hard cover; $35 paper) survives to remind us of both the great richness of the 164 pictures that the show comprised and the especially egregious brand of nonsense that the most apparently straightforward art seems to inspire in some art historians these days.

For all the breathlessness with which they were offered, and the xenophobic frenzy with which they were attacked, the show’s premises seem self-evident to anyone who knows much about either history or art. Does anyone really need to be disabused of the belief that history “is an objective reading of the past”? Did nineteenthcentury artists or their patrons ever believe that their depictions of Western scenes were “literally true”? Is it in any way surprising that Americans who were engaged in a titanic enterprise so all-consuming as the exploration and exploitation of the West would pay to have themselves praised rather than damned in paint? Is anyone out there astonished to learn that some “Western” paintings were actually painted in the East, that artists who did venture into the authentic Western landscape sometimes rearranged or omitted details once they got back to the studio?

Reeves’s charges may be accurate, but Kennedy, like any man in any walk of life, was made up of more than the sum of his weaknesses.

What is astonishing is the diligence with which the curators have winkled ever more elaborate meanings out of these mostly plain pictures. Clearly they have looked at them too long. Some examples:

Carson’s Men , Charles Russell’s rendering of Kit’Carson and two companions on horseback crossing a river, is solemnly revealed to be a metaphor for the Crucifixion. (Among the pieces of “evidence” earnestly adduced: a bleached buffalo skull in the foreground is pronounced “Golgothian,” and Carson’s first name is “Christopher.” Get it?) The composition of a second Russell painting, a pitched battle between mounted Indian warriors, titled For Supremacy , turns out to display in its “asymmetrical arrangement (there are more [Indians] on the left than right) … a stereotypical idea of the ‘imbalance’ or disorder of Indian cultures.” Three black servants listening in the background of Richard Caton Woodville’s Old 76 and Young ’48 as a wounded Mexican War veteran recounts his adventures at the front “suggests the uncertain consequences of the war’s aftermath to the status of black Americans,” while the soldier’s saber, lying on the floor, may really be “an augury of the impending Civil War. …” Albert Bierstadt’s Last of the Buffalo , in which a warrior draws his bow on a massive bull, unconsciously expresses the artist’s—and white America’s—“guilty longing that resilient Indians might really vanish.” And while the helpless subject of Irving Couse’s The Captive might seem to be in some danger from the Indian who has trussed her up, she turns out, according to the museum label, to be “ really captured” by her “role as sexual stereotype. …”

When I was studying painting in the late 1950s, we were taught that “meaning” had no place in art. That was nonsense. But surely so is the notion that it is our task to discover hidden agendas and uncover trendy secret messages in the work of long-ago artists whose minds such notions never crossed. By and large the artists whose work is included in “The West as America” glorified the westward movement because, rightly or wrongly, they thought it glorious.