JFK The Stained-Glass Image

In mid-November, 1963, according to all major best-seller lists, the most popular nonfiction publication in America was a book that portrayed Jack Kennedy as “immature,” “arrogant,” “snobbish,” “glib,” “slick,” “calculating,” “hard as nails,” “mealymouthed,” “opportunistic,” “Machiavellian,” “intellectually shallow,” “spiritually rootless,” “morally pusillanimous,” “passionless,” “vain,” “shifty-eyed,” and, for every good reason, nicknamed “Jack the Knife.” The book, of course, was J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth, by Victor Lasky. By the end of the same month there burned above the grave of the very same man an eternal flame, more often reserved in the protocol of his religion for saints of the first order. Whatever their religious or political persuasion, few Americans were protesting this instant canonization. In the horror, grief, and guilt that overwhelmed the nation following the assassination, the minor Kennedy myth that Lasky had contended against—the fine-liberal-fellow image—had expanded uncountable times, been transformed and purified, burst all mortal bonds, and soared toward the realm of the supernatural. As after the death of Lincoln nearly a hundred years earlier, the common thought of Americans was “How are the fallen mighty!” and John F. Kennedy was on his way to becoming the legendary national hero of his century.

“It is difficult now to comprehend the wave of hero-worship which swept over the country after Lincoln’s assassination,” Roy P. Basler wrote a generation ago in The Lincoln Legend. “Lincoln was suddenly lifted into the sky as the folk-hero, the deliverer, and the martyr who had come to save his people and to die for them … the folk mind was enraptured with the stories of how Lincoln had suffered, prayed, dreamed, and loved mankind and conquered his enemies. How he had doubted, despaired, cunningly schemed, and contrived to effect his ends, no one wanted to hear.” Thousands of Americans were soon seriously arguing that Lincoln was of divine origin. (Alter all, in his own words he was the son of an “angel mother”; his father-of-record was a poor carpenter; and he was shot on Good Friday.) This conclusion would have astonished Lincoln only a little more than, in the view of Arthur Krock and some of John Kennedy’s other friends, the lighting of the eternal flame would have embarrassed Kennedy nearly a century later. But neither man was by this time making history. It was being made for him.

Until 1872 Lincoln biography was entirely in the hands of spiritual and stylistic descendants of Parson Weems, rather than of men who had known him as he was. Then a book appeared by Ward Hill Lamon, a jovial crony of Lincoln’s who had ridden the backwoods legal circuit with him in central Illinois. Lamon was “pre-eminently the Good Fellow,” writes Sandburg, and the President’s more punctilious associates regarded the long Lincoln-Lamon alliance as evidence of “a certain degree of … obtuseness” on Lincoln’s part. “Sing me a little song,” he often said to Lamon, who would then make him smile with some such nonsensical ballad as “Cousin Sally Downard.” “I want you with me, I must have you,” Lincoln told his old friend when he was about to leave for Washington, and he arranged to have Lamon appointed a city marshal at the capital. Lamon’s biography of Lincoln, pulled together by a ghostwriter, was based largely on material gathered by Lincoln’s onetime law partner, William H. Herndon. A bald account of the late President’s political opportunism and his often indecorous life during his western years, it was denounced as “shameless.” “Want of delicacy and even decency,” wrote a more worshipful biographer, made its appearance “something close to a national misfortune.” The book did not even reap the traditional reward of publications charged with indecency; it was a financial failure. In the first years after the assassination Herndon had delivered several lectures based on the material he had made available to Lamon, but it wasn’t until 1889 that he published his own biography, Herndon’s Lincoln, in which Lincoln emerged as an earthy, moody, irreligious frontier hero, unrecognizable as the saintly Christian martyr of prevailing legend. (“Why, Lamon,” wrote Herndon, “if you and I had not told the exact truth about Lincoln he would have been a myth in a hundred years after 1865.”) The Herndon book, which, of course, launched myths of its own, such as the Ann Rutledge love story so infuriating to Mary Todd Lincoln, brought Herndon less than five hundred dollars in royalties in the next eight years. Their tedious, circumspect Abraham Lincoln: A History proved to be a more profitable venture for Lincoln’s two private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Authorized by Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s surviving son (Nicolay and Hay, gibed Herndon, were “afraid of Bob; he gives them materials and they in their turn play hush”), the widely admired biography appeared in serial form in the Century Magazine during the eighties but was not published as a book until 1890, a quarter of a century after Lincoln’s death.