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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
As important as this occasion was in establishing the romantic legend, Jacqueline Kennedy contributed even more in a subsequent interview with Theodore White. She told him: “At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot. ” She emphasized: “There’ll be great Presidents again—and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me—but there’ll never be another Camelot again.” The rubric Camelot quickly made its way into the historical literature. Indeed, Samuel Eliot Morison ended his 1965 chronicle The Oxford History of the American People with the lyrics from the Loewe-Lerner musical, including the words: “That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory—called Camelot.”
It is unlikely that historians will ever again give so much credence to the conception of Camelot, but Kennedy’s place in our history as the romantic hero, cruelly slain in his prime, seems secure. As the columnist Gerald Johnson observed: “Logical analysis will certainly be applied to Kennedy’s career, and will have about as much effect on his position in history as Mrs. Partington’s mop had upon the Atlantic tide. … Historians may protest, logicians may rave, but they cannot alter the fact that any kind of man, once touched by romance, is removed from all categories and is comparable only with the legendary. … Already it has happened to two of the 35 men who have held the Presidency, rendering them incapable of analysis by the instruments of scholarship; and now Washington, the god-like, and Lincoln, the saintly, have been joined by Kennedy, the Young Chevalier.”
Like the fair youth on Keats’s Grecian urn, Kennedy will be forever in pursuit, forever unfulfilled, but also “for ever young,” beyond the power of time and the words of historians.