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Dismantling the Myth of JFK’s Camelot

Kennedy in Dallas limousineWe all remember where we were when we heard the news.

I was in Miss Howard’s classroom.

My classmates and I spent the time before and after school that fall playing touch football, and arguing about whether the ball carrier had actually been touched with two hands or just one.

To an 11-year-old in a small upstate New York town, Dallas was somewhere far away.

We pledged allegiance to the wall. The president was young, handsome and dashing. His wife was beautiful. My mother and her friends hated his politics but wanted to dress like Jackie.

JFK had a New Frontier, and we were supposed to ask what we could do for our country. I had watched his inauguration and seen a white-haired old Vermonter by the name of Robert Frost read a poem.

Just a year before that fateful day in 1963, the world had been to the brink of nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba. I came home after school for several days that fall to help my father finish the fallout shelter he was building in our basement.

About 2 p.m. on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963 — a Friday — the school principal, Mr. Estes, interrupted classes with an abrupt announcement on the P.A.: “We have learned that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. I will come back on the P.A. once we have more news.”

There were no websites to rush to for more news, no Twitter feed for updates from the scene. And so we waited in Miss Howard’s classroom for more news from Dallas, and we pretended everything was the same. I assumed the president would be OK. Who could kill a man like that?

Awhile later, as the school week crept toward its end, Mr. Estes came back on the P.A.:

“I’m sorry to have to tell you,” he began, and his voice cracked. It was an era in which men never ever cried in public. So we knew it must be bad.

“I’m sorry to tell you that – that President Kennedy is dead.”

Fifty years later, reading and watching the rehashes of the Kennedy assassination and the tumultuous career that preceded it, we are still trying to make sense of JFK’s life and death.

The official version is that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman who killed Kennedy that day. A special House committee later concluded there was a second shooter and the assassination was likely the result of a conspiracy. But no proven alternative has emerged to the lone-gunman scenario, and we may never know what’s in the CIA files.

Watching the lengthy PBS profile this week about John Kennedy’s life leading up to the 1960 election, I was struck by how diminished the myth has become.

Kennedy essentially lived a lie. And for many years during and after his presidency, we believed that lie.

He was a courageous war hero, it’s true, and he was indisputably good looking, charming, hardworking and funny. He inspired confidence and made America believe in a new generation of leaders.

But as the numerous histories and TV shows make clear, the public was fed — and bought — a steady series of untruths about the rest of his life.

We can see now how recklessly he lived. We may never know if that recklessness led to his death. But it surely put the country in more peril.

Kennedy didn’t write most of Profiles in Courage, the book that brought him so much acclaim. He was a lazy legislator as a congressman and senator. Depicted as vigorous and the picture of health, he suffered for much of his life from colitis, a debilitating intestinal disorder. The powerful steroids used to treat the disease eroded his spine and left him in constant pain.

He also developed Addison’s disease, a life-threatening disorder of the adrenal glands. The steroids used to treat that disease further debilitated him and left his skin a darkening yellow. His handlers passed it off as a perpetual tan.

To deal with the severe back pain and fatigue, Kennedy had his own Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobsen, inject him dozens of times with a mixture reported to contain amphetamines, bone marrow, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, and multivitamins. (“I don’t care if it’s horse piss,” the president was said to remark. “It works.”)

His marriage to Jackie was portrayed by the press as a storybook fable, marred only by miscarriages. But behind the Camelot curtain, he was a compulsive womanizer. He seduced White House interns and slept with a parade of other women, probably including Marilyn Monroe and definitely including Judith Campbell Exner. He used Exner to carry messages and perhaps payoffs to mobsters Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli.

It’s well beyond me and this space to summarize the JFK legacy. But I’m reminded of a line from a song Dylan wrote not long after Jack Kennedy’s death: “Don’t follow leaders.”

We need leaders, of course. But for those of us who lived through JFK’s presidency — and who have since then watched the gradual dismantling of the Camelot myth — our view of every would-be leader will always be filtered through an extra dose of skepticism.

-30 –

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