PRINT February 1986


“THAT’S NOT MY FACE,” the man would say, standing in front of the mirror and feeling his cheeks with his hands.1 The era was the early ’60s, and the speaker was not Frankenstein’s monster but the president of the United States, John F Kennedy. Several years earlier he had been treated for Addison’s disease with injections of steroids, which had caused his thin face to round out and gain the handsome fullness that made it so impressive. Truly, it was not his face; it was a face that had been molded not only by pharmaceuticals but by the chemical baths in which beholder and beheld are swirled together in the photographer’s darkroom—it was our face, the face of our fantasy the face we wanted to see projected as a larger-than-life image of ourselves. It was a face destined to endure immense quantities of what Samuel Beckett has called the “anguish of perceivedness,” the horror of being seen.

The process through which the camera and “Jack” found each other and stayed with each other is charged with meaning, as is our relentless attention to his image. How little we understand the interplay of desire, image, and event. Yet how powerfully it functions among us, and what control it exerts over our feelings and our actions. A spell takes hold, involving us, our idols, and the camera. Once going, the process feeds on itself: our gaze nourishes the clicking of the camera, which in turn stimulates the posing of the objects (the photographed ones), which in turn deepens the hypnosis of our gaze, and so on, until voyeurism and exhibitionism collaborate to render the camera’s beloved a collective archetype, not an individual. As the love of seeing and the trial of being seen enter union, selfhood undergoes transformations. Beneath the glory and privilege of becoming a human idol is the horror of perpetually being seen, and below this the worse horror of being seen not as one knows oneself to be but as something one doesn’t know By the time that something has taken form, it is no longer in the idol’s control, no longer an image that can be maintained or dissolved on his or her own initiative. It is now part of an onrushing dynamic, a dynamic incorporating a point of no return beyond which one is either carried across the stage of history, in a role whose outcome is unknown, or closeted in a curtained apartment inside which one escapes the camera by more or less abandoning life.

Perhaps the camera’s beloved was once an ordinary person who volunteered happily to feel our gaze and the camera’s, not knowing that the image can set loose a flood of attention and desire and take on a life of its own. Most of us have no direct experience with photography’s effect on the self other than the nostalgic feeling one gets when looking at an old picture, or the twinge of seeing a bad snapshot of ourselves, a snapshot that family and friends know is not like us at our best but that nonetheless offers some likeness of face, body and circumstance. In special cases, however, when the camera has recognized one of those specially marked by the passion of our fantasy, one ready for transformation into public theater, something happens that is a version of Oscar Wilde’s fable of the picture of Dorian Gray, which ages and festers in a secret room while Gray remains youthful and beautiful. Jack Kennedy knew that secret room—the room where he stood, thinking, “That’s not my face” The face that was “not my face” became like the emblematic masks worn in ancient classical dramas.

Those masks had megaphonelike channels at the mouths to amplify the actors’ voices. The performers wore high boots that made them about six inches taller This magnification and depersonalization made the actors into archetypes, not individuals. Today, the image can work like ancient Greek stage apparatus, as we can see with Jack Kennedy and then with his brother Robert—people whose sense of theater was not only innate but highly developed (their distinctive voices, their impressive speeches). In and by itself, the camera specifies the one-of-a-kind individual; when interacting with social forces, however, it is like a metaphysical lens, making the concrete universal while appearing to maintain it as concrete. The universal dimension occurs in our minds; it is something that we add on to the image given by the camera, and in the consequences of that addition trouble can begin. It is here that the image has the greatest power, where it ceases to be just another picture—on television or in print—and becomes a collectively created icon.

Attempts are often made to inflate the images of politicians, movie stars, and royalty into heroic proportions, or to saturate them with the glamour of desire. All such figures make their living to a degree by being seen, but today royalty does so most purely; politicians traffic in politics, actors act when they get the chance, but in our time, when royalty no longer rules, its role is plainly and simply to be seen. Theater and royalty go together. In the ancient rituals from which our theatrical entertainments evolved, the two great subjects were the matings of royalty and their deaths—the origins of comedy and tragedy respectively. And just as theater has always been about royalty, royalty has always been about theater—the pageants, poses, costumes, and stunning appearances amid flocks of courtiers serve as enchantments, or advertisements, to bond communities around dynastic power lines. In America, deprived of native royalty we still watch with fascination the strange proceedings of foreign hut preferably English-speaking lords and ladies. We follow Prince Charles and Princess Diana almost with amusement, feeling keenly their decorative function. Their job is to be photographed, yet the camera can generate only the flimsiest of light romances around them; their lives appear more a domestic sitcom than a work of mature stagecraft with developed characters and meaningful subject matter. (Still, Princess Di has potential. We’re not through with her. The English needed a figure of communal fantasy to distract them from their depressed empire. First there was the wedding, like an event of state, then the babies produced as proofs of England’s future royal status. The press went for Diana like sharks for blood; she responded like one bearing the mark. Now the darker notes of what People magazine calls “Malice in the Palace” suggest a sitcom deepening into a melodrama.)

The Kennedys, our native dynasty, meant (and mean) more to us than just royal pageantry; they meant politics, which is to say our future, the destiny of America. With their youth (Jack was our youngest elected president ever); their liberalism, which looked as if it might weld a disparate nation into unity; and their constant emphasis on the future, they were perhaps our last truly Modernist institution. We watched with fascination as the camera began its work, participating in a chain of events that would mount in intensity This is not the ordinary run of events for public figures; becoming a myth is the product of an aura that arises from more than just being photographed or filmed. All publicity shots invite our collusion in the mythologizing process, but we relatively rarely take up the invitation. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, for example, also court our attention, and with the skill of media professionals. But no matter how much they smile and kiss and dance for the cameras, and even though we look at this and some of us vote for it, we don’t live off it like lovers or parasites. The camera may produce evocative or meaningful pictures of the Reagans, but it doesn’t seem to loose on them the torrent of our imagination, as it did on the Kennedys.

The Kennedy dynasty is often said to have been created by the ambition of Joe Kennedy and its influence on his kids, but many an ambitious father has failed to install his brats in the White House. The Kennedy phenomenon was created by more mysterious agents and forces, which created illusions, realities, and events with a blinding speed. Their dynasty is only twenty-five years old—though to a member of the family it might seem somewhat older, perhaps going back to Joe Kennedy’s ambassadorship to Great Britain, from 1937 to 1940, or even to the congressional tenure of Rose Kennedy’s father, “Honey Fitz,” from 1895 to 1901. For most of us it began in 1960, when we first got a crush on Jack’s Huckleberry Finn haircut. Since then, we’ve discovered that the sense of a dynasty can be established by the passing of an office—or, better, an image—from brother to brother rather than from father to son. Bobby by himself probably would not have generated a national theater; it was Jack’s image and then his violent death that anointed Bobby, the next in line, whose own powerful image and violent death passed on the sense of being anointed to Ted. After Jack’s death, we said to one another, “You know, it’s hard not to like Bobby after all.” Watching Bobby’s funeral, we looked at each other at the end of Ted’s speech as if to say, “Maybe he’s the greatest of them all.”

When Jack Kennedy was elected President, in 1960, American culture actually seemed to coalesce around a center, Camelot. It seemed to make sense as more than itself—more, so much more, than the true grit of Truman or the yike of Ike. Suddenly and unexpectedly, we had something the crowned heads of Europe and Asia could envy—while it had the beauty, pageantry and theater they strove for, ’it was real, it was about politics rather than tradition, about the future rather than the past. It meant that for Americansthe future was not just a dream or fantasy; an enviable future was guaranteed by the fact that it was visibly present in a beautiful body of images—or, rather, in images of beautiful bodies. The generations that flowed from Joe and Rose—nine children, geometrically multiplying grandchildren—were like an added security that the fullness of life would blossom serenely and happily in an enchanted nation. In an eye-blink of history, an eye-blink saturated with the bright light of the flashbulb, we witnessed a stream of memorable moments in which politics and culture bedded down together, crossing borders between genres, generations, and styles: Robert Frost reading poetry at Jack’s inauguration, with Robert Lowell, W H. Auden, Allen Tate, John Steinbeck, Paul Tillich, and Jacques Maritain in the audience—the inauguration ceremony that provoked Archibald MacLeish to say “It left me proud and hopeful to be an American,” and provoked Ernest Hemingway to write from the Mayo Clinic that “there was happiness and the hope and the pride and how beautiful we thought Mrs. Kennedy was. . . . It is a good thing to have a brave man as our president”; Pablo Casals playing the cello in the White House; Maria Callas’ Medea-like rage upon learning that Jackie was invited to recuperate on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht The Christina after the death of her third child with Jack, baby Patrick; Gore Vidal thrown out of the White House; Frank Sinatra building a helipad at his Palm Springs home to receive presidential visits; the famous dinner at the White House for all the Nobel Prize winners of the western hemisphere—William Faulkner declined to come, saying, “I’m too old at my age to travel that far to eat with strangers”; and, more generally the awesome level of culture in the White House, the seedbed from which the National Endowment for the Arts and all its works have grown.

Camelot was serious, too; this came through to us most poignantly in the history of how the men had fought our wars. The eldest son, Joe Jr., who his father thought would be president, was tragically killed in World War II. (“Tragically” is a word used constantly in the Kennedy literature.) The next son, Jack, the weakling whom Joe Jr. used to beat up mercilessly, was nearly killed in the same war, in an incident for which he was decorated for heroism and about which a Hollywood movie was made. At the very end of the war Bobby served, in a destroyer named after his dead brother, the U.S.S. Joseph P Kennedy, Jr.—this destroyer would later lead the blockade of Soviet ships in the Cuban missile crisis, in 1962.

No wonder we are obsessed with pictures and facts about the Kennedy’s. Around 1960, picture books of the family, like the picture books of the royal family in England, began to appear, and since then America—the world’s richest nation, the world’s leading democracy, the world’s melting pot, heretofore the world’s most underdeveloped theater—has been flushed with Kennedy fever, basking in the kind of union of fashion and power that Oscar Wilde was the first to name "the beautiful people:’ Perhaps from Europe came a wry grin at our instant royalty, but for us this was a serious relationship with neither side holding hack. It long ago passed the range of a flirtation; our national archetypes and our minds were rearranged. Jack and Jackie’s faces together became a sort of new American flag. Later, when the romance turned to tragedy, Jackie, walking down the steps of the rotunda after the laying out of Jack’s body, became our Mother Courage. They really did it and we really saw it.

The firestorm lit by us, the Kennedys, and the camera needs additional fuel beyond its own images, and some of that fuel comes from writing. Writers, like photographers, have been magnetically drawn to the family; spectators in the same theater as the camera, they have not only added verbal images to the photographic ones, but have also woven networks of connections and interpretations among the images, making them seem even more real in their power to move us. The power of our attraction has provided a market for an incredible flow of books—you could found a whole publishing industry on the clan. For twenty-five years now volume after volume has chased article after article. Massively researched and scholarly family biographies cover the whole sweep of things since Honey Fitz, while individual biographies describe Joe, Rose, Jack, Bobby, Joan, damn near everyone. In carefully documented books, with photographs that set off waves of memory and feeling decades later, theories are endlessly expounded on subjects such as Jack’s assassination in Dallas, Bobby’s in Los Angeles, and Teddy’s disgrace at Chappaquiddick. Too many books and special issues and articles to count convey the infinite details we crave—on the shootings, on the funerals, on the affairs, on the addictions, on Jackie’s relationship with her father, “Black Jack” Bouvier, on the little blue overcoat that John-John wore to Jack’s funeral, on Caroline’s buck teeth, on Ethel’s apparent rock-jawed sanity and on her tennis game while seven months pregnant, on Bobby’s practical jokes, on Joan’s divorce from Teddy. These are a record of our shifting crushes and dalliances and obsessions over the last quarter of a century as our attention has roamed now here, now there, prowling for action, one year discovering a new character we had hardly even noticed before, the next, coming to see a new dimension in one we thought we already knew exhaustively

The history of our voyeurism was not over when Teddy lost more than two-thirds of the presidential primaries and caucuses in 1982. The death of Bobby’s youngest son, David, by drug overdose, in 1984, with, as we were so graphically told, the needle marks of heroin use hidden in his groin hairs, gripped the nation like the death of a crown prince or favorite son—though he had done nothing at all to win our regard. David’s death came to us with the weight of previous images of history. His life, it seems, had been molded by them to an extraordinary extent. On the night of,his father’s win in the 1968 California primary, David, aged 13, was watching television in a Los Angeles hotel room, awaiting his father’s victory speech, when instead he saw the coverage of his death. Forgotten by the grown-ups, he sat up all night watching the constantly replayed footage, which must have taken hold of his mind in a way hardly imaginable in its dreadfulness and intimacy. There is something like Fate or the Furies in the way the camera is interwoven with this family, and reveals for them their lives and deaths. According to yet another recent book, Joe, after his stroke in 1961, became speechless; he would sit in his room and watch TV, uttering chains of meaningless sounds but only one recognizable word, no, which he would moan over and over in an incantatory trance, as if vainly rejecting the course that history had taken. On the day that Jack died, the family kept turning off his set. That’s how he knew something was wrong. Television had become the way he found out about his family—like David learning of his father’s death; this is how the old man sensed that one more of his sons was missing. For David the camera had a prophetic role, pointing at the fact of death stalking through the men in the family toward him.

But back to the romance. It’s no coincidence that Camelot arose with the coming of age of the mass media. Around 1960, the first generation of kids who had television sets waiting for them when they got home from junior high school voted for the family that looked most like the families played by professional actors and actresses in TV sitcoms. An elegant Life with Father troupe entered the White House. The camera loved them—we loved them—not only because they said the right things, but because they tended to be beautiful, the men handsome and boyish, earnest and jocular at once, the women sexy and stylish and strong, the children and cousins laughing princes and princesses. Now sitting with royalty, now playing at their tournaments—touch football, skiing, swimming, sailing—through it all their smiles, their tossed-back laughing faces, their honest open eyes had a heartrendingly beautiful casualness. Just think of what came before and after Camelot in the White House: men whose eyes did not declare that they were gazing into a better future, who did not attract the camera like magnets, their wives no Jackie. The moment of the Kennedys’ beauty was revelatory, and the revelation was about us: we had not realized that we were beautiful enough to have them as leaders or models. Our image of ourselves was heightened by gazing at them.

Then the genre changed, from romantic to tragic theater. The second act seemed bizarrely incapable of growing from the first, unless what has been said of comedy—that it is always the first act of a tragedy—applies to romance too. Spellbound all the more by the new wave of images, we watched unbelievingly as Camelot somehow led into the dreadful events we all remember with such painful clarity, as if they had happened to ourselves or to people in our family. Dallas, 1963. Jack’s head snapping forward as he was shot. Jackie, with blood still on her skirt, boarding Air Force One. Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald under the astonished gaze of the Dallas detective in his white hat, as the whole world watched. 1968: Bobby dead. Stupefied, we continued to watch as the image of the marriage of cute chubby Ted to willowy blond Joan gave way to the coverage of Mary Jo Kopechne being dragged from the underwater car window by a rope around her neck, blood on the collar, sleeves, and back of her shirt, her body never autopsied; and of Teddy, the baby, the one who wouldn’t take his own Spanish exam at Harvard, sweating pitifully through his excuses on TV: “When I left the party around 11:15 PM, I was accompanied by one of these girls, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne. . . . My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all. . . . ”

Within this dreadful shift of genre lies hidden a collective momentum. There have been many other times in history when leaders have been assassinated. Often, such an event can be attributed exclusively to a single deranged killer, or to a political adversary or a hostile institution—the CIA, the Mafia, and Fidel Castro have all been mentioned in connection with the Kennedys in addition to the accused individuals. As individuals, of course, we who did not pull the trigger are not implicated in the Kennedys’ specific fates. Still, the succession of disasters and tribulations that has beset the family—always accompanied by our eyes, glued as though to a spectacle—suggests a troubling pattern of social forces beyond the specific hand of an individual murderer and his or her specific twisted purposes. Along with their epic scale and tragic depth, these events also have something of the morality play about them, and a part of its lesson must be that there was, in us and in the Kennedys, a dangerous naiveté about the image, a wide-eyed willingness to participate together in the image’s game of cause and effect, with little sense of the awesome power that a set of images has, when unleashed by communal imagination, to intensify events. The secret collusion between us, the Kennedy’s, and the camera created figures who were no longer whatever they had been (and we will never know who they really were) when they were just themselves. The camera made them—not without their eager cooperation—into packaged products, whose identity was determined less by what they were than by what we needed: it formed them into objects for our gaze. Remade by photography, staging, and text, they became part of that small group of humans whom total strangers refer to by their first names, that charmed circle where Elvis, Marilyn, and Jesus will live forever. At one time these transfigurations took place over generations, through oral history; now they take place through the camera, in a sixteenth of a second.

Being looked at was a part of Jack’s profession, and ostensibly he seemed to enjoy it. He evidently thought that he could control the image without being controlled by it. He bent his efforts to this end, and has been heralded as the first president to understand the political uses of the visual media, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt had understood the power of the radio. Soon after his election he retired into the visual symbolism of the presidency, and, under cover of the semiotics of dignity, devoted himself to staged appearances. The relationship between image and policy became clear—as did the ability of one to replace the other. Politics as entertainment gave way to entertainment as politics. Two full-time photographers accompanied the Kennedy family in the White House and outside it. Think how nervous the camera, or for that matter the microphone, makes most of us. Our beloved family had to develop an acute sense of self-observation and wariness. They had, as it were, constantly to astral-project a part of their minds out of their bodies to make sure that they looked good at every second, just in case. Jack, so keenly aware of the part that image plays in establishing mythology, had rules about never being photographed while, for example, eating or kissing. Jackie, who prior to her marriage had herself been an “inquiring photographer” for the Washington Times-Herald, and who was photographed photographing Jack early in their relationship, tried to keep the camera away from the kids, except at events staged specifically to offer them up to it—events that she knew had to occur frequently to keep the machines fed. She devoted much industry to the structure of these events. The children—begotten, born, and raised as a part of our Kennedy theater—grew up not only with the camera constantly clicking away at them, but with the experience of seeing pictures of themselves everywhere, beautiful, as if they were omnipresent religious presences. A sense of removal from causality—precisely’ the Camelot sense—arises from this phenomenon. Think of how shocking it is to see in the flesh someone you have seen all your life in photo-graphs or on the screen. You feel incredulous that these people really exist as human beings.

“Whom the gods love dies young,” said the ancient Greek poet Menander If the gods were really taken with you, the idea was, they couldn’t wait to enjoy your company, and summoned you early For us, the saying must take a flatter, more technological form—perhaps, “Whom the cameras love dies young” One wonders if a list of the most photographed people in the world wouldn’t show an unusual number of strange, violent, or early deaths. The camera—like the ritual theater of antiquity—has a special connection with the tragic and sacrificial. Picture the viewfinder, twenty-five years ago, dissolving into a rifle sight and zeroing in on Camelot. What did it see? It saw something that we loved in the first act, when the play was a romance, but that made us insatiable in the second; it saw a studied sprezzatura, that aristocratic casualness of posture and mien that was recommended by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1561), that poise—casual, confident, blessed, gracefully disposed in relation to furniture and architecture, comfortable in being looked at by multitudes—that goes back to Greek and Roman sculptures of gods and goddesses. There was a deeper meaning in our attraction to the Kennedys’ poise than we acknowledged, a meaning that symbiotically connects our self-image to our image of others, and that touches on what we can bear in contrast to ourselves. We couldn’t see it until it had forced itself upon us and them: like movie stars, through whose heads the winds of disaster play at an early age, these people were being set up for sacrifice. That is the chilling thing. Hidden like voyeurs, we gazed at them safe in our invisibility. They stood in the merciless light of our attention. Perhaps it is not so much they who have captured us as we who have captured them. Their faces are our property (Think of Jackie, fighting off for years paparazzo Ron Galella’s attempts to capture her image.) Neither the Kennedys nor we knew that what we were admiring was the handsomeness of the chosen victims, who, as in ancient sacrificial rites and ritual theater, had to be the very finest, the most perfect, of their kind.

As beasts are washed and shaved before the knife, the Kennedy’s were stripped naked before us in a gradual, horrific rite of transformation. They came to us, in the first stage, as certain specific archetypes: Joe, the aged but tough king; Rose, the queen mother; Jack, the vigorous young lord of the Round Table; Bobby and Teddy and Sarge and the rest, the loyal knights; Jackie and Ethel and Joan and the rest, the perfect ladies who loved and believed in them; the kids, the crown princes and princesses. Later, as doom enveloped Camelot, new personas were brought to the fore from a more ancient body of mythic archetypes: Jack, the dead king; Jackie, the sacred widow; Rose, the mater dolorosa; Bobby and Teddy, new fodder for the ritual kingship; Bobby Jr. and David and the others—the “lost boys,” as a recent book on the Kennedys called them—the Epigoni, or sons of the heroes. As the Kennedys’ roles changed, or, rather, as history’s framework shifted around them, tiny signals throughout the culture guided them into their new shapes. The New York Times, for example, in its coverage of Jack’s funeral, stage-directed the family in its story headlines, which reveal the fixed roles the paper had in mind for each character: “Mrs. Kennedy Maintains a Stoic Dignity Throughout Final Hours of Public Grief.” “John, Jr., on 3rd Birthday, Salutes His Father’s Passing Coffin.” And so on. The New York Herald Tribune’s style was different, but steered toward a similar end. In huge letters beside a photograph of Jackie at the funeral—a photograph like the one Andy Warhol used for some of his portraits of her—the headline on the funeral story read, “The Wife—Unmatched in Courage.” Throughout the text of the story were one-word subheadings: “Dutiful,” “Regal” “Captivating,” “Motherly.” “Glamorous.”

After Bobby’s death, and after Chappaquiddick, the afternoon-television-like picture of the unalloyed domestic virtue of the pols and their families was superseded by a parade of salacious details. Even the secrets of Jack’s presidency began to emerge, and the world was ready to hear the worst. The earlier picture inverted itself: each romantic light of Camelot now had to be accompanied by its own hidden shadow We saw Jackie with the Oleg Cassini surface stripped away, and everything else stripped away too, in those photos of her naked on the beach at Skorpios. Our memories of Jack—or of the image screen he had hidden behind—underwent a deep purgation: the new stories, however familiar they may have been in New York and Washington, seemed mind-boggling in Ohio and Texas—the President smoking pot in the White House, or planking movie starlets in the White House bedroom. We found ourselves reading true or false tales, not in the National Enquirer but in ordinary newspapers, about Jack’s rather ’50s-style sexual habits, his orientation toward conquest. This merging of private and public information was a part of a broader cultural shift in the rules of journalism (highly in evidence during Watergate). The shift has spread widely, applying to high- and low-culture figures alike. Scholarly biographies, for example, which, exceptions notwithstanding, had previously danced around details of sex lives, now fetishize them. In 1981, Albert Goldman published the most shocking of personal histories of Elvis. In 1985, Leon Edel revised his classic biography of Henry James, introducing the theme of homosexuality But James, of course, is dead, and so is Elvis. Among living people, few have felt the discomfort of having their secrets published as the Kennedys have. Our scopophilia, as Sigmund Freud called it, or voyeurism, came to need a new type of image. The gloves came off as we sought the seamier reality that now alone seemed to make the drama real. Now the mask or cover was to be torn off.

In considering our hunger to see beneath the manipulated, prettified surface of the images of Camelot, we must always remember Joe’s advice to his children: “It’s not what you are that counts, but what people think you are” When Joe’s and Rose’s eldest daughter, Rosemary, turned out to be retarded, it was covered up. When another daughter, Kathleen, died in a plane crash while flying off with a married lover, the family covered up the fact that she was having an affair with him. When Jack developed Addison’s disease, they covered it up. When Jack—a first-generation beatnik at heart—got into drugs and adultery in the White House, they covered it up. When Marilyn Monroe died under circumstances that some say implicated Bobby, someone covered up her connections with him for years. When Teddy had a mad night on Chappaquiddick, they tried to cover it up. And so on. They were also in the business of repressing books. When family-friend William Man-chester wrote a mildly intimate account of Jack’s presidency, the family attempted to repress or censor it, and when Manchester defended his work they wrote him off. When another family friend, Paul Fay, wrote a personal memoir of Jack, they tried to censor out anything that might not have been conceived by a press agent. This hasn’t changed. When Peter Collier and David Horowitz were working on their three-generation study of the family, The Kennedys: An American Drama, a few years ago, no family member older than David and Bobby Jr. would speak to them. The grown-ups stonewalled, and criticized the youngsters who had talked. In a sense, the pictures and documents of the early period fascinated us precisely because we sensed the soft underbelly of concealment. Those images—so controlled—hooked us, in part, because of their masklike quality. The Kennedys’ attempt to control images involved as active a hand in their repression as in their propagation. They had a brilliant and accurate sense of the danger of words and images, so they rigorously controlled them; but they didn’t know that even the controlled images, once involved in a relationship with the public independent of the men and women who were their subject matter, were dangerous too. This essentially was their downfall.

Through all our lives, images of the Kennedys have floated like metopes from ancient friezes—sometimes in photographs, sometimes in narrative images made the more titillating by the repressions behind them. Sometimes there is a nearly comic element to them—but black comedy at best. For what we laughed about when the shocking aspect of Camelot began breaking into public view was not the new images themselves; it was amazed laughter at how fully the image system controlled us, at how easily it had pulled the wool over our eyes in the early days with a show that now, under the influence of a different set of images, seemed a kind of insult to us all. If it was a comedy, we the people seemed to be the butt of the joke. But of course it didn’t stop there, either; as Kennedy fever kept on producing Kennedy fragments, layers behind layers, it was no longer clear that there was any particular butt of the joke, which seemed to twist itself around and catch everyone, both us the watchers and those who were watched. Today the black humor can be found undisguised in, say, the name of a rock group such as the Dead Kennedys, or a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Madonna as Marilyn, the mistress of two Kennedy brothers.

“We were all,” said David’s cousin Chris Lawford, “every one of us, raised to be president.” The pure fantasy tone of the remark is chilling, because by this point the family’s theater isn’t really about politics anymore—the Kennedys haven’t ruled for 22 years—but about a form of communal sacrifice. Some of the religions that practiced human sacrifice involve parallels with the Kennedys’ life of privilege and excess balanced by early doom. Anthropological literature records cases of a chosen victim enjoying special privileges for a time on the understanding that ultimately he would die violently, painfully, and publicly—with the cameras humming, as it were. Perhaps he would be treated as king for a year or so, with royal titles and regalia. Women would be freely provided, wealthy quarters and viands supplied, and he would be busy partying down beyond his dreams. But the party would end, and at the end he would not merely sleep it off and rise again. One can imagine occasions when the victim, overcome by the sweetness and narcosis of the perfect moment, would forget the terms of the deal altogether. That’s the moment when sacrificial rite veers over into tragic drama, when the lens zooms in.

Witnessing disaster bonds a community in a manufactured sense of voyeuristic good fortune, as when the Roman poet Lucretius described how good it feels to stand safely on the shore and watch a shipwreck out at sea. Human groups have always arranged sacrificial spectacles for this purpose. In paleolithic cultures shamans acted as lightning rods for disaster in their communities, drawing it down on themselves to shield others from it; that’s how they paid the rent. In the ancient Near Eastern “scapegoat” rite a person would be ritually saddled with all the sins of the community, then driven out of the oasis into the desert to wander alone fora time until, purified by suffering, he could be readmitted. The tragic dramas of the Greeks seem to reenact such rites; in these plays whole families—the House of Atreus, the House of Thebes—are anointed as targets for disaster, sacred and doomed, like the Kennedys. Watching the scapegoat on the stage—or in the media of the day—we are bonded in a fascinated and horrified gaze, joined by our guilt of collusion and by our secret elation at our own good luck in not being the victims. At a repressed level, we feel something that may have been operative in the audiences of the Greek tragedies—a ferocious need to justify our ordinariness through the tactics of bringing beauty low and revealing genius as doomed or self-destructive. It is not unusual that the victims of these tactics comply.

Members of the doomed families of the tragic tradition were worshiped as demigods, and the dramas that kept their stories in action were sponsored by the state and performed in public without charge for admission, in the way the Kennedys perform for us. Aristotle, in the first articulated theory of tragedy, said that the witnessing of tragic events purifies us by pity and terror. The Kennedys, especially Bobby, were involved with the tragic point of view Extemporaneous remarks Bobby made in a speech after Martin Luther King’s death include a passage from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 BC) about the sacrificial murder of a womanizing king; when Bobby himself died, most of the same passage was inscribed on a “remembrance card” distributed to everyone at the funeral:

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

The history of this quoted nugget is interesting. In the family only Jack read much; after his death Bobby went through a depressed and anguished period in the midst of which Jackie, who knew that Jack had found consolation in reading, gave him a copy of Edith Hamilton’s book The Greek Way (1930). The chapter on tragedy attracted Bobby; he memorized two passages quoted by Hamilton, the one from Aeschylus and another, from Sophocles, of lines spoken by Oedipus in his old age in Oedipus at Colonus:

The long days store up many things nearer to grief than joy. . . .
Death at the last [is] the deliverer.
Not to be horn is past all prizing best.
Next best by far when one has seen the light
Is to go thither swiftly whence he came.

The passage (the fourth line really should be translated “. . . once one has seen the light”) recommends that while it is best not to be born, next best is to die as a newborn infant. It is spoken by a man marked out as a monstrum or sign to other humans above just about anyone on record. Oedipus, as we remember, was acclaimed a hero at one point, but then he experienced the most shattering reversal, finding that he had, unintentionally but certainly, killed his father and married his mother. This was Apollo’s little joke on him, cautioning people not to be too sure they had things sized up right.

Bobby must have embraced the tragic point of view on Aristotle’s grounds: that through attention to the spectacle of the deaths of great people, the world can be purified and made wiser by suffering. But Aristotle’s account is not the only one. The tragic point of view has been criticized on the grounds that it justifies unnecessary misery and thus impedes social change. (The Christian version of this provides the idea of suffering on earth in the expectation of reward in heaven.) Today, it is not convincing, if indeed it ever was, to think of tragedy as leading to a better world through self-knowledge. Today, tragedy follows upon tragedy like microbe movements or molecular flows, as if it were natural and would never end. There are no heros on the stage. “Newsworthy” tragedy is the impersonal meat feeding the hungry television cameras, which in turn feed us. History and media are mistaken for one another. Bobby, tragically, didn’t know that. Photographs show him—the tragic visionary, who while campaigning would say to aides that someday “they’ll get me,” and then would rush into the frenzied crowds unprotected—exhilarated, as though asking for more.

Aristotle’s idea of the tragic flaw is the least impressive part of his theory of tragedy. Still, although it has been more appropriately applied to Richard Nixon than to the Kennedys, it has some relevance to them. In connection with Jack, Teddy and, since the Marilyn speculations, with Bobby too, the flaw has been primarily identified as that of womanizing, but there’s more to it: the flaw in these men was their willingness to yield self to image, their willingness to allow themselves to operate as phantoms. But this is not exactly a personal flaw. For how could they know they were functioning in phantom form when all the world conspired to make them into those phantoms and then pretended they were real, constantly looking at them as if there were something there? “Dad told all the boys to get laid as often as possible,” Jack once remarked. Bobby was supposedly different in this respect, yet both men seemed to reflect the kind of mechanical patterns of behavior that perpetuate the tragic situation. The recently published allegations of Jack’s and Bobby’s simultaneous or overlapping affairs with Marilyn—the single most famous sacrificial victim ever produced out of that mix of personal ambition, image manipulation, and public obsession—seems a supererogatory attempt to follow Dad’s example. It’s an image in which things seem to move so fast they blur. Were the Kennedy boys (as they are called, like the James boys) appropriating her into their tragedy, or was she coopting them into hers? A visitor to Lawford’s Malibu tryst-house during the period when these events are purported to have occurred described Marilyn as “half doped,” lounging on cushions, with blood spreading across her white pants as she lay back apparently oblivious to the onset of menstruation. How much fun can she have been, this goddess who was so wrecked that she would terminate phone conversations by laying the phone down on a table, pretending it wasn’t there anymore? The awful implication is that they must all have been phantoms, swallowed by the camera and their own myths, ghosts wandering lost in the forest of media images, unable to see behind the masks or masques that glittered over it all.

Jackie’s anxiety about the image makes her a special figure in the story. We wanted her to be “the widow of the chief,” yet she knew somewhere within her that this was a dangerous role with an ancient weight that would crush her. Her success in defying us—with her breathtaking flight to (pagan) Greece and a second kingly husband, whom also she would outlive—is shown by how strongly we feel that she failed us. After Jack’s death, nuns across America recommended her as the role model for Catholic womanhood; she was quite literally compared to the Mother of God in a thousand classrooms. When she dove into pagan nakedness before the paparazzi’s revelatory lenses, it was, for her, an attempt at freedom—yet we felt betrayed. Where was our pillbox hat? She was desperate to escape the horror of being seen; our eyes were hungry for more. We all looked at Galena’s pictures through the years of his troubadorlike ordeal of love for this lady hidden in palaces. It was as if he was doing our bidding when he lingered outside her door or stalked her in the street. Finally, a judge ordered him to come no nearer to her than a certain number of feet for the rest of his life, a sentence like a rule from an ancient ritual, as if he were the scapegoat’s attendant, always there but always at his proper distance, just watching, the observer, the stand-in for us all. Jackie’s recent “working woman” status—running around after celebrity biographies at Doubleday—shows how perverse the web can get for a myth avoiding the horror of being seen.

Others ran away from rather than toward the camera long before Jackie. Confronted with people in whom the camera triggered a flight response, photographers could, if they wished, see clearly that the medium was not as mimetic as it was assumed to be. At the beginning of photography the Platonic idea of an art that imitates nature seemed to have reached its perfect realization in the photograph, which seemed as objective a representation as could be imagined. But the belief that a neutral transfer of information occurred in the chemical emulsion of the film was contradicted by the plain fact that people photographed in fear are not the same as they were before they saw the camera. The presence of the camera can do more than transfer information—it can create it. Something like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle seems to be involved—the idea that to look at something is to change it, so that one does not in fact see what one had intended to look at, but something else created by the looking itself.

An example of the catalytic effect of the camera is the experience of the Loud family, of Santa Barbara, California, who allowed a film crew into their home for seven months in 1971. The result was a series of television programs called An American Family. The episodes had a distinct progression: at first, the subjects were nervous and self-conscious. After a while they seemed to get used to the presence of the camera: they were filmed casually lounging around watching TV, laughing or chatting, going to the kitchen to get a snack, yawning and going off to bed. Next, the Louds began to use the camera, exhibiting themselves in unexpected ways to us, the audience, the voyeurs. We became involved in their familial tensions, and they discovered they could use the camera as a whip against, or a path to, each other. By the final show the situation in the Loud household had changed far more than we are led to expect is normal in a suburban household. From the son Lance’s homosexuality to his parents’ breakup, in full camera and recorder range, this was a transition from Life with Father to Oedipus Rex. Some analysts later said that what broke the family up was the continual tension of having a film crew present. One can only speculate on how much of this would have happened without the presence of the camera. It could be said that the camera zeroed in on things that already existed, exacerbated them, and drove them on to resolution, or that the camera added another dimension to the Louds’ experience in which they may have found, and taken, options that in some way were not there before; it was in a sense not unlike the type of psychotherapy in which a family therapy session is videotaped so that the members of the family, by watching the tape, can observe their interpersonal dynamics—except that in this case millions were watching with them, which must have had its own catalytic power.

Something similar to the Louds’ experience might have happened in Jackie’s own family when the brothers Albert and David Maysles, directors of documentary films, made the movie Grey Gardens (1975). The title refers to the Long Island home of two relations of Jackie’s, an eccentric aunt and a cousin. The Maysles brothers, one with 16-millimeter camera, the other with tape recorder, spent many hours in that home, and filmed the daffy women in the most intimate moments of conversation and pastime. Half dressed, they danced and sang and strutted before the camera in their shared bedroom. Above all, they talked endlessly and without restraint. The presence of the camera and tape recorder allowed them to exhibit their world of fantasy The camera made it real. As it roams among us with its transforming power, it brings events into being constantly, from a simple pose for a snapshot to the hijacking of a plane in order to get a message on the TV news. In hostage crises as in the case of the Kennedys, the camera has participated in savage rituals of sacrifice.

There are those who try to circumvent the effect of the camera. Like Alan Funt on the TV show Candid Camera, the Russian director Dziga Vertov used a concealed camera, in his case on the streets of Moscow, in the ’20s, in order not to alter the behavior of his subjects, who did not know they were being filmed. (This invokes its own set of complex moral questions regarding deception, invasion of privacy, and so on.) Many filmmakers have tried various means to defuse or disguise the camera, to render it neutral in its effect on the behavior of the people around it. In the early days of photography ethnologists often found that tribal or so-called “primitive” people were afraid of the box that could capture a person’s appearance. In such a belief system a photograph becomes like a voodoo doll: one who has your picture has you. The members of tribal cultures who fled the camera had a point. There was in fact a kind of capture going on in some of these photographs; it was as if the ethnologists snapping pictures of “primitives” around the world wanted to carry these people home in their pockets to study them in a tamed and mastered form. More recently David and Judith MacDougall, in making the documentary The Wedding Camels (1980), in Kenya, lived for six months with the people they intended to film and record without turning on either the camera or the tape recorder; meanwhile he wore the camera and she the tape recorder strapped to them at all times—the idea being that the equipment would eventually come to seem like part of the clothing or personal appearance of the filmmakers. This sounds like a solution, but it depends on the unlikely circumstance of filming people who really don’t know either what it means to be filmed, or what photographs and movies look like. Still other ethnographic filmmakers, in the tradition of Robert Flaherty, have attempted to engage the people they are filming in the process more actively, by, for example, developing each day’s rushes and projecting them to the people who were photographed in them, even engaging them as camera people to film one another. One wonders what happens to such people after the filmmakers leave, and how they feel about being made into artworks.

Jack and Jackie were effectively made into artworks, and not just by steroids or Andy Warhol. Artworks, of course, are to be looked at. The Kennedys, remade, presented themselves as they thought we would want them. They offered themselves to us, and we bit. Myths that move nations are collaborative. They must grip a community and a potential idol with the same fantasy at the same time. In poring over the records of the Kennedys’ lives and deaths one needs to look not just for them but for us. Freud, in writing about voyeurism, said that the voyeur’s gaze is essentially autoerotic. By gazing at the body of another, the voyeur seeks his or her own body. Ultimately, then, the object of the voyeur’s gaze must be set free, and the gaze turned back on the self. We the viewers must share the Kennedys’ horror of being seen.

In the late Roman Republic, two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, were both politicians. First the older gained high office and was assassinated; then the younger gained high office and was assassinated. These events set off a string of deaths, culminating in the murder of Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic. The intensity of this public theater gave a bad odor to the whole project of social change, which came to be associated with chaos. It led then to Augustus Caesar, now to Ronald Reagan. In other words, the central figures of the Kennedy era have been used, as products of failed idealism in general are, as a means to retard social change, while their predominant intentions were to do the opposite.

Recently the media delivered news to us about three of the young Kennedys, still trying to win back their patrimony Joe II, as he is called, is Bobby’s eldest son. He’s the one who had so much trouble in school, and used to beat up Bobby Jr. This year he’ll be running for Tip O’Neill’s seat in Congress, which was once held by Jack Kennedy; now it may go back to the family, as if it belonged dynastically Last spring, some editions of the New York Times relayed the information that Joe II’s cousin Ted Jr. was considering a bid for this very seat. Two days later, the same paper picked up an announcement by the elder Ted that his namesake had in factno plans to run; then, after a lapse of several months, reports of Joe II’s intentions began to make their appearance. It would seem that the family had discouraged young Teddy on the grounds that the kids should run one at a time, and in sequence of their ages, as their fathers did (Joe II is 33, Teddy Jr. 24), so as not to steal the fullness of our attention from one another. They are competing, you might say, less for an office than for our attentiveness, like artworks on a wall or performers on a stage. The Epigoni, in the ancient Theban cycle of myths, schemed and strove to win back the kingdom of their patrimony. They did it with soldiers and swords; since Jack, it’s been done with television and photography. The problem with going on in this vein is that it reflects a continuing naiveté about the complex exertions of the image, its flexing now toward the beholder, now toward the beheld, uniting them, mingling them, sending them back to themselves changed and new, having partially incorporated each other, and thus having become liable to new actions because both are to a degree new selves. That is why it is so loaded, for the young Kennedys and for us, when these young people present themselves to us, in an atmosphere that can only be described as surcharged. A picture of Joe II in the New York Post was recognizably handsome, toothy, and Ivy League. In Maryland we may have another leader in the making. According to a Boston Herald story, again picked up by the New York Post, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Bobby and Ethel, the older sister ofJoe II (and named after Jack’s sister Kathleen), “is considering a bid for Congress in Maryland:’ A female Kennedy running for office! The story was unaccompanied by a photograph of her, as was one in Newsweek in December, titled ”Camelot (Continued): Three Kennedys contemplate political futures.“ The article did, however, include a picture of Joe II, with his wife, Sheila, and one of Teddy all alone, titled ”The Patriarch."

Thomas McEvilley is a writer who lives in New York. He is a contributing editor of Artforum, and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.



1. The scene is described in Peter Collier’s and David Horowitz’s The Kennedys: An American Drama. But this article has grown out of many books and magazine and newspaper articles, some scholarly, some journalistic, some popular. It was deemed best not to encumber the text with individual footnotes on each fact, but the inquiring reader who may want to dig deeper can find more or less all the Kennedy-related information In this article, in the context in which the author saw it, in the following books. The list is selective, many more works were consulted in the writing.

Chellis, Marcia, Living with the Kennedys: The Joan Kennedy Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

Collier, Peter, and Horowitz, David, The Kennedys: An American Drama (New York: Summit Books, 1984).

Davis, John H., _The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster, 1848–1983 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984).

Kennedy, Rose Fitzgerald, Times to Remember, Garden City (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1974).

Klagsbrun, Francine, and Whitney, David C., eds., Assassination: Robert F. Kennedy—1925–68 (New York: Cowles Educational Corporation, 1968).

Manchester, William, One Brief Shining Moment (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1983).

Martin, Ralph G., A Hero for Our Tone: An Intimate Story of the Kennedy Years (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1983).

Rust, Zad, Teddy Bare: The Last of the Kennedy Clan (Boston and Los Angeles: Western Islands, 1971).

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr, Robert Kennedy and His Times (New York: Ballantine Books. 1978).

Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House (Boston and Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin Company and the Riverside Press, 1965).

Shaw, Mark, The John F. Kennedys: A Family Album (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1959).

Stoughton, Cecil, and Clifton, Chester V., The Memories: JFK, 1961–61 (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961).

Summers, Anthony, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985).

United Press International and American Heritage magazine, Four Days: The Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1964).

Whalen, Richard J., The Founding Father: The Story of Joseph P. Kennedy (New York: New American Library, 1964).