PRINT May 1992



IF THE MONOGRAM “JFK” is the most contested signifier in American politics, it is because, among other things, President John F. Kennedy was the Democratic Party’s last viable icon.

You won’t hear too many candidates this season evoking Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. But each presidential hopeful carries a piece of the JFK combination—Bill Clinton has his studly insouciance, the suspended Paul Tsongas represents his geographic base, Jerry Brown had his “youth” (now faded) and unusual religion. It’s George Bush, of course, who is the closest candidate in terms of class, breeding, and macho cynicism. But even the self-identified paleoconservative Pat Buchanan has laid claim to him, maintaining that “today’s Democrats would never nominate JFK; with his views, he would be dismissed as a ‘rightwing clone’ of Ronald Reagan.”

Indeed, Reagan—the first Republican to appropriate Kennedy (as well as FDR and Harry Truman)—was something like a more successful JFK, and not only because he survived his assassination attempt and “won” the Cold War, as well as a second term. Like Kennedy, Reagan promised to restore a lost national greatness. Also, he cut taxes on business, liked third world intrigues, raised the stakes on anti-Communism, and mobilized Hollywood. In short, he cashed the check that Kennedy wrote—achieving Teflon status during his lifetime.

Of course, Reagan was made in and by the media; JFK was made for the media. His father, worth some $300 million, was famous for bankrolling the movies of Gloria Swanson, his mistress, and masterminded the series of mergers that created RKO. In 1952, the year 300 Washington correspondents voted Jack Kennedy “handsomest member of the House of Representatives,” the future president was elected to the U.S. Senate in the most calculated, expensive, and technologically advanced campaign in Massachusetts history. Old Joe Kennedy, who believed that the movies would spawn America’s post–New Deal aristocracy, had considered hitching his son to Grace Kelly, but thought her “too Hollywood.” (One of his daughters, however, did marry MGM star Peter Lawford.) Still, the young Kennedy would be promoted as a national celebrity. Life magazine went “courting” with the senator, featuring him and his fiancée Jackie on the cover—they upstaged the end of the Korean War—then returned a few months later to report on their wedding.

The publication of Profiles in Courage (a book of popular history virtually ghostwritten by Theodore Sorenson), in 1956, heralded Kennedy’s entry onto the national stage. At the 1956 Democratic convention he narrated the party film, The Pursuit of Happiness, and lost the vice-presidential nomination by only 38.5 votes. As the national ticket went down, his drive for the 1960 nomination took off. Time’s cover on “the Democratic whiz of 1957” described Kennedy as a coed’s dream, a political Elvis—a politician mobbed by autograph-seeking college students and assaulted by amorous admirers. “America’s politics would now be also America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s best-seller,” Norman Mailer predicted in his celebrated Esquire piece on the 1960 Democratic Convention.

The thousand-day reign we’ve named for a Broadway musical that opened two months after the 1960 election and ran into 1963 was our first and most compelling miniseries—born in manufactured glamour, ending in televised catastrophe. The American Camelot was a form of social science fiction that marked the second stage of the cold war, the second coming of Frank Sinatra, the canonization of James Bond, the glorification of counterinsurgency, and the sanctification of hard-headed realpolitik. Even at the time, it inspired a number of movies—several themselves rooted in popular novels and in television—that represented American politics as the province of demagogues, blackmailers, and conspiracies, casting one president after another in the terrifying light of some personal or public Armageddon.

Fittingly, the afterlife of the Kennedy administration’s “one brief shining moment” has thrived on declassified information—the tawdry revelations of the president’s tangled love-life that emerged in the aftermath of Watergate, the ambiguous Missile Crisis data released after the Soviet collapse—as well as all manner of free-lance conspiracy-theorizing. The virtually socialist-realist idealizations in the made-for-TV portraits The Missiles of October (1973), Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (1977), and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981) have been “realistically” tarnished in such subsequent miniseries as The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1990) and last fall’s A Woman Named Jackie—not to mention the televised trial of William Kennedy Smith, or the entire career of Senator Ted Kennedy. Still, the thrill remains.

The controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s JFK, however, was something of a displacement. One might wonder why there were no New York Times editorials fulminating against the “distortions” of Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel Libra, which uses Lee Harvey Oswald’s life to meditate on the ways in which fiction contaminates so-called reality. (After all, the TV-induced symbiosis of entertainment, history, and politics is so complete that no one complains when Star Trek memorabilia is enshrined, alongside actual moon rocks and Lindbergh’s authentic Spirit of St. Louis, in America’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel—the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) Surely the main reason Stone’s movie inspired such fear was that it is so obviously of a piece with the canned show biz and controlled reportage that passes for our nightly news. Fittingly, the journalistic denunciations of Stone’s movie peaked with the anniversary of Operation Desert Storm; as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Nightline rushed to attack Stone, their self-righteous outrage at his speculative “tampering” with history and presumed confusion of the public precluded analysis of their own role in the rampant manipulation and disinformation that continues to surround the Gulf War.

At least the Kennedy assassination is a conspiracy in which we can all join. The new movie Ruby, an altogether less grandiose treatment of the material than Stone’s, is even closer to America’s sense of the conspiracy against JFK when it places a gaggle of Mafia dons, an ersatz Frank Sinatra, the Kennedy brothers, a Judith Campbell/Marilyn Monroe/Candy Barr composite, David Ferrie, and Jack Ruby in the suitably tawdry Olympus of the same Las Vegas showroom. You can connect the dots yourself and conclude that, yes, the media universe has an order after all.

On the other hand, that Mario Cuomo chose to announce that he would not run for president on the very day of JFK’s national opening suggests another, more practical displacement. Perhaps the revived fascination with the Kennedy assassination is only a secret longing that arises from our apparent inability to generate alternatives to, and thus dispose of, an unpopular sitting president. In the Euro-American world conjured up by David Duke, Pat Buchanan, and, ultimately, George Bush, the only good Democrat is a dead one.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum and writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York. Vulgar Modernism, a collection of his essays from the ’80s, was recently published by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.