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John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later
Was the murdered President one of our best, a man of “vigor, rationality, and noble vision” or was he “an optical illusion,” “an expensively programmed waxwork”? A noted historian examines the mottled evolution of his reputation.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Frequently Kennedy’s critics have traced the source of his failures in foreign policy to his obsessive machismo. It has become commonplace among historians to depict Kennedy as a sex-driven man who fashioned policies out of a compulsion to prove his maleness. In The Kennedy Neurosis, Nancy Gager Clinch, a psychohistorian, argued that the President was motivated by “an obsessive-compulsive need for power and social recognition” and that the popularity of this “pseudo-sorcerer” derived from the neurotic needs of the American people. Throughout her volume she employs psychological jargon with an abandon that would make Joyce Brothers blush. “This book,” she writes,”can hardly presume to be an analysis of the American psyche, although one is sorely needed, but it is possible to separate out from the American characterology at least a dozen strains of neurotic obsessiveness that are directly mirrored in the Kennedys.” Her historical analogies are no more restrained. She asserts that the “reaction to President Kennedy was a psychohistorical parallel to the public enthusiasm aroused by Martin Luther in the sixteenth-century Reformation,” and that the “Kennedy mystique can also be seen as essentially the outcome of some four thousand years of the Graeco-Judeo-Christian ethos.” However extreme, she is not alone in asserting that Kennedy’s policies in Cuba and Vietnam came out of a neurotic desire to demonstrate his virility.
At the same time that writers found fault with Kennedy’s policies, they expressed increasing disenchantment with his style, including the Camelot imagery. In Waiting for the End, published in the year following Kennedy’s death, the critic Leslie Fiedler called the late President “the very embodiment of middlebrow culture climbing,” while others depicted the Kennedy family as the purveyors of the distorted values of a consumer-oriented society. “The Kennedys were pure consumption, particularly on the women’s side.… All they were thinking of was clothes and hairdos,” the essayist Elizabeth Hardwick has said. In Mary Barelli Gallagher’s memoir of Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Lady is portrayed, noted one reviewer, as a “greedy, insensitive narcissist, a compulsive shopper and dieter, a chronically tardy child-woman who had fits of temper when she couldn’t get her way.”
Yet even if Kennedy has fallen in esteem since 1963, not all writers agree with this strongly negative assessment. Kennedy, they point out, was the first to raise issues that had been too long buried, the first to assail the verities of the Cold War and the myths of economic orthodoxy and of racism. On three successive days in June 1963, the historian William Chafe points out, Kennedy advocated new departures on world peace, economic growth, and civil rights. Though they acknowledge Kennedy’s shortcomings with regard to the black revolution, historians such as Carl Brauer and Steven Lawson, after exhaustive examination of manuscript materials in the Kennedy Library and other archives, have also emphasized more positive developments, such as the expansion of black suffrage under the prodding of the Justice Department. Kennedy, concludes Brauer, both encouraged and responded to black aspirations and led the nation into its “Second Reconstruction.”