In short, I think you can judge every progressive “ism” by its Utopia. What’s vexing about contemporary liberalism is that it doesn’t admit its Utopia forthrightly. The Marxists were honest about the dream of the classless society blooming from the withered-away state. The Social Gospel progressives openly promised to create a “Kingdom of Heaven” on earth (Obama did once slip and say that we can create a “Kingdom here on earth,” but he’s usually let his followers fill-in-the-blank about why, exactly, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for). To their credit, the transhumanist types are honest about their utopianism; that glorious day when we can download our brains into X-boxes and Vulcan mind-meld with the toaster.
But liberals are annoying in that they have the itch to immanentize the eschaton but neither the courage nor the vocabulary to state it openly. Now, in fairness, the urge usually takes the form of Hallmark-card idealism rather than soul-crushing collectivism. The young activist who recycles Robert F. Kennedy’s line “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why … I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” has no idea he’s a walking, talking cliché, a non-conformist in theory while a predictable conformist in fact. But he also has no idea he’s tapping into his inner utopian.
You know what else the aforementioned kid with the RFK quote is oblivious to? That RFK didn’t coin the phrase (JFK didn’t either, but he did use it first). The line actually comes from one of the worst people of the 20th century, George Bernard Shaw (admittedly he’s on the B-list of worst people since he never killed anybody; he just celebrated people who did).
That much a lot of people know. But the funny part is the line comes from Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah. Specifically, it’s what the Serpent says to Eve in order to sell her on eating the apple and gaining a kind of immortality through sex (or something like that). Of course, Shaw’s Serpent differs from the biblical serpent, because Shaw — a great rationalizer of evil — is naturally sympathetic to the serpent. Still, it’s kind of hilarious that legions of Kennedy worshippers invoke this line as a pithy summation of the idealistic impulse, putting it nearly on par with Kennedy’s nationalistic “Ask Not” riff, without realizing they’re stealing lines from … the Devil.
I don’t think this means you can march into the local high school, kick open the door to the student government offices with a crucifix extended, shouting “the power of Christ compels you!” while splashing holy water on every kid who uses that “RFK” quote on his Facebook page. But it is interesting.
Jonah Goldberg, “The Campus Utopians”, National Review, 2014-02-08
September 23, 2014
May 9, 2014
The Toronto Sun shares a portion of Peter Worthington’s Looking for Trouble (now available as an e-book) dealing with the trial of Jack Ruby. Worthington had been in the room when Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Ruby trial was pure showbiz. While the witnesses and characters who surfaced during the trial were Damon Runyon, the judge and lawyers seemed straight out of Al Capp and Dogpatch. Judge Joe B. Brown’s legal education before he was elected to the bench consisted of three years of night school 35 years earlier. In Dallas he was known as Necessity – “because Necessity knows no law.”
One day as a stripper who worked at Ruby’s nightclub called Little Lynn (who was over nine months pregnant at the time), was waiting to testify, seven prisoners in the connecting county jail grabbed a woman hostage and fled. They had fashioned a pistol of soap, pencils and shoe polish, persuaded guards that it was real, and made their break, witnessed by some 100 million viewers.
Little Lynn fainted and Belli prepared to play midwife. A BBC reporter on the phone to his office was describing the action and repeatedly swore to his editors that he was neither kidding, nor had he been drinking. “Listen, you bloody fools, this is America, this is Texas … any bloody insane thing is possible here!”
The next day, the New York Daily News ran an eloquent black headline: “Oh, Dallas!”
The jury returned in 140 minutes with a guilty verdict. In Texas, where the juries set the penalty, they opted for the electric chair.
Belli returned to San Francisco in disgust. “I shall never return here; it’s an evil, bigoted, rotten, stinking town.”
As it happened, Ruby died three years later and won a form of immortality and a place in criminal and political legend.
And as for conspiracy theories, the flaw is that Oswald was an ideologue, a semi-literate left-wing extremist, while Ruby wouldn’t know what an ideologue was unless he did a strip-tease for him.
To choose two such perfect foils on which to base a presidential murder plot challenges credulity. There has been so much official deceit, perjury, rationalization and cover-up that the deeds seem [...] more sinister than they actually have been.
We will probably never know the truth.
November 22, 2013
Colby Cosh makes no friends among the over-60 Kennedy worshipping community:
The myth of Kennedy as a uniquely admirable knight-errant has finally, I think, been wiped out by the accumulation of ugly details about his sexual conduct and family life. For a while it was still possible to regard JFK’s tomcatting as the inevitable concomitant of super-masculine greatness. By now it is pretty clear that he was just an abusive, spoiled creep. There are scenes in White House intern Mimi Alford’s 2012 memoir that make you wonder why it took so long for somebody to shoot the swinish bastard.
As for the assassination itself, the experience of seeing conspiracy theories bloom like a toxic meadow after 9/11 has hardened us all against the nonsense that was still popular in the 1990s. Most adults, I think, now understand that Oliver Stone’s JFK was a buffet of tripe. It is no coincidence that Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel book about JFK’s slaying, written after decades of fairly deep research, stuck close to the orthodox Warren commission narrative.
The new favourite themes in the 50th anniversary coverage dispense with grassy-knoll phantoms and disappearing-reappearing Oswalds. One new documentary has revived Howard Donahue’s idea that the final bullet that blasted Kennedy’s skull apart might have been fired accidentally by a Secret Service agent in one of the trailing cars. This would help explain the oddity of the Zapruder footage, and might also account for some awkwardly disappearing evidence — notably JFK’s brain — without requiring us to believe anything obviously outrageous.
In the early ’70s Lyndon Johnson made a cryptic remark about JFK possibly being killed because his administration had been “running a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” This offhand remark turned out to be quite specific; rumours of multiple CIA assassination attempts against Castro were true, as were wilder tales of literal Mafia involvement (confirmed when the CIA “Family Jewels” were declassified in 2007). Oswald would not exactly have been anyone’s first choice as an intelligence asset, and probably had no state sponsor. But notice that it’s 2013 and we still have to say “probably.”
November 20, 2013
Virginia Postrel on the legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy:
When she was 22, the future Jacqueline Kennedy won a Vogue contest with an essay in which she dreamed of being “a sort of Overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century.” As first lady, she proved herself a genius at visual persuasion. She crafted her own image, refined her husband’s, re-created the White House’s, and even shaped America’s abroad.
Her most evocative and enduring image-making came when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 50 years ago this week. She art-directed the funeral’s pageantry and then, in an interview with T.H. White for Life magazine, memorably linked her husband to one of the most powerful legends in the English-speaking world. Jackie created the myth of the Kennedy administration as Camelot: the lost golden age that proved ideals could become real.
The Arthurian legends traditionally operate as what the cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “displaced meaning.” Every culture, he observes, maintains ideals that can never be fully realized in everyday life, from Christian charity to economic equality. Yet for all their empirical failings, such cultural ideals supply essential purpose and meaning, offering identity and hope. To preserve and transmit them, cultures develop images and stories that portray a distant world in which their ideals are realized — a paradise, a utopia, a golden age, a promised land, a world to come. Camelot is such a setting.
“When they are transported to a distant cultural domain,” McCracken writes, “ideals are made to seem practicable realities. What is otherwise unsubstantiated and potentially improbable in the present world is now validated, somehow ‘proven,’ by its existence in another, distant one.”
[...] The Kennedy administration ended with sudden violence from without, making Jackie’s analogy doubly potent. It suggested a parallel with a legendary Golden Age while simultaneously implying that, left to itself, this new Golden Age might have continued indefinitely. This Camelot was pure glamour: a frozen moment, its flaws and conflicts obscured.
Glamour invites projection. For 50 years, Americans of various persuasions have imagined their ideals embodied in a Camelot that might have been. Advocates of a vigorous Cold War foreign policy claim John Kennedy. So do their opposites. He did less for the civil-rights movement than his unglamorous successor, Lyndon Johnson, yet in imagination he would have done more. Above all, people imagine that somehow a living Kennedy would have prevented the tumult of the 1960s.
November 5, 2013
Gene Healy thinks that after fifty years, it’s time we stopped pretending that John F. Kennedy was a great president:
In a December 1963 interview, the president’s widow gave a name to the Kennedy mystique, telling journalist Theodore White of Jack’s fondness for the lyric from the Lerner and Loewe musical about King Arthur: “Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
Much more than a “moment,” Camelot has proven an enduring myth.
JFK places near the top 10 in most presidential ranking surveys of historians, and in a 2011 Gallup poll, Americans ranked him ahead of George Washington in a list of “America’s greatest presidents.”
Kennedy’s murder was a national tragedy, to be sure, but an honest assessment of his record shows that our lawless and reckless 35th president was anything but a national treasure.
Indeed, JFK rarely let legal specifics deter his exercise of presidential power. At his behest in 1961, the Internal Revenue Service set up a “strike force,” the Ideological Organizations Project, targeting groups opposing the administration.
In 1962, outraged that American steel manufacturers had raised prices, he ordered wiretaps, IRS audits and dawn FBI raids on steel executives’ homes.
In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning national security journalist Thomas E. Ricks opined that JFK “probably was the worst American president of the [20th] century.”
In foreign policy, Ricks said, “he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”
True enough, after being buffaloed into the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation by the CIA, Kennedy helped bring the world to the brink of thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis — not because Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the strategic balance of power (they did not), but because, as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted, the missiles were “politically unacceptable” for the president.
Moreover, Kennedy’s aura of vitality and “vigah” depended on deliberate lies about his medical fitness for office: “I never had Addison’s disease … my health is excellent,” JFK told a reporter in 1961.
As Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves notes, JFK, who “received the last rites of the Catholic Church at least four times as an adult,” was “something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections,” including a psychiatrically dangerous cocktail of painkillers and amphetamines regularly administered by celebrity physician Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson.
Update, 6 November: Nick Gillespie assigns the blame (for the still-going hagiography) on the boomers in a piece titled “JFK Still Dead, Baby Boomers Still Self-Absorbed”
Indeed, by the early 1970s, what American over or under 30 didn’t agree with the sentiments expressed in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story on youth politics co-authored by Louis Rossetto, the future cofounder of Wired magazine? “John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’” seethed Rossetto and Stan Lehr. “Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of [author] David Friedman: ‘Ask not what government can do for you… ask rather what government is doing to you.’”
But boomers were so much older then, they’re younger than that now, right? Despite the raft of revelations not just about governmental abuses of power generally but those involving JFK specifically, boomers just can’t quit him (or their airbrushed image of him) as their own mortality comes into focus. Here’s Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, known for an “artful nastiness that’s long disappeared from his peers’ arsenal,” still going weak in the knees for Jack:
I remember the light at the end of the school hallway reflecting off the floor as word went round and the weight in the air the days after. For kids my age, it was like losing a father, a father who had all of our motley fates in his hands…
As Splice Today’s Russ Smith — himself a boomer old enough to remember where he was when Kennedy was shot — notes, this is pure overstatement: “It wasn’t ‘like losing a father,’ and to suggest so is an affront to all the children who actually did lose their own father at a tender age.” Smith, who as the founder of the Baltimore and Washington City Papers and The New York Press knows a thing or two about reader appetites, is “betting that most of these books bomb, mostly because for most Americans those tumultuous days in 1963 are ancient history. Kennedy’s assassination might as well have occurred in the 19th century. Save for ascending and budding historians, where’s the audience for yet another encore of Camelot?”
August 5, 2013
Steve Chapman makes a case against nepotism in the modern world:
It would be silly to make Caroline Kennedy the White House science adviser: She’s not a scientist. It would be silly to name her fire commissioner of New York City: She has no background in public safety.
The standards are different in other fields. Kennedy has no previous known interest in Japan, Asia or international relations and is not a diplomat. But Barack Obama has chosen her to be the next ambassador to Japan.
Liz Cheney, likewise, is not inhibited by anything she lacks. She went to high school in northern Virginia, college in Colorado and law school in Chicago, before taking up residence in the Washington, D.C. area. Under George W. Bush, she held a couple of State Department jobs for which she had no obvious qualifications. But now she’s running for the U.S. Senate from Wyoming.
You could pick a name out of the phone book and find someone with better credentials. But these names are not random. They are household names, made famous by their fathers: John F. Kennedy and Dick Cheney. So the daughters carry an aura of expertise and gravity.
They benefit from “branding” — their association with the genuine accomplishments of famous relatives. But the logic behind that appeal only goes so far. Just because you wear Nike shoes doesn’t mean you’d buy a can of Nike beans. A Cheney’s virtues, if any, may not be present in another Cheney.
January 12, 2013
In The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz looks at the myths and realities of the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States over Cuba in 1962:
On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. With these offensive weapons, which represented a new and existential threat to America, Moscow significantly raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers — a gambit that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. On October 22, the president, with no other recourse, proclaimed in a televised address that his administration knew of the illegal missiles, and delivered an ultimatum insisting on their removal, announcing an American “quarantine” of Cuba to force compliance with his demands. While carefully avoiding provocative action and coolly calibrating each Soviet countermeasure, Kennedy and his lieutenants brooked no compromise; they held firm, despite Moscow’s efforts to link a resolution to extrinsic issues and despite predictable Soviet blustering about American aggression and violation of international law. In the tense 13‑day crisis, the Americans and Soviets went eyeball-to-eyeball. Thanks to the Kennedy administration’s placid resolve and prudent crisis management — thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world” — the Soviet leadership blinked: Moscow dismantled the missiles, and a cataclysm was averted.
Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous. But this was the rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory — as the pundits’ commentaries and media coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis attested.
Scholars, however, have long known a very different story: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern — who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes — is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.
[. . .]
The patient spadework of Stern and other scholars has since led to further revelations. Stern demonstrates that Robert Kennedy hardly inhabited the conciliatory and statesmanlike role during the crisis that his allies described in their hagiographic chronicles and memoirs and that he himself advanced in his posthumously published book, Thirteen Days. In fact, he was among the most consistently and recklessly hawkish of the president’s advisers, pushing not for a blockade or even air strikes against Cuba but for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Stern authoritatively concludes that “if RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.” He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts — “profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive” — were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.
June 19, 2012
Robert Fulford: 1963-74 was a period where “everything connects in a web of deceit, paranoia and distorted ambition”
An interesting article by Robert Fulford in the National Post, discussing the time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the resignation of Richard Nixon. I was too young to pay any attention to politics in those days, and I only started being aware of how weird it was through reading Hunter S. Thompson’s political writings of the time — and I still think it’s a great encapsulation of the bottled insanity of the US political system of that era.
For 11 years, 1963 to 1974, tragedy and shame were the most persistent themes of American politics. That period has never been given a name, but after four decades it feels like a distinct unit in history. From the death of John Kennedy to the resignation of Richard Nixon, everything connects in a web of deceit, paranoia and distorted ambition.
[. . .]
Even after ultimate power fell into Johnson’s hands, it left him squirming in frustration and rage. He was triumphant for a brief moment, pushing through Congress laws that opened society to black Americans. But he felt surrounded by enemies. Although he asked Kennedy’s men to stay on, he never trusted them. When Malvolio leaves the stage he threatens, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” That was how Johnson felt about Bobby Kennedy. Caro is especially good on the bitter 15-year struggle that consumed these two men, both smart but both hopelessly lacking in self-awareness.
Johnson’s second downfall, the swiftly increasing Vietnam war, was also America’s tragedy, a fruitless enterprise that cost many lives and wrecked American confidence in Washington. As Caro now says, “Everyone thinks distrust of government started under Nixon. That’s not true. It started under Johnson.” On Vietnam he lied so consistently that Americans ceased to believe anything he said. Journalists spoke euphemistically of his “credibility gap.” Trust in the political class never returned.
With Johnson so dishonoured that he couldn’t run for re-election in 1968, Nixon succeeded him. He brought with him a style darker and more paranoid even than Johnson’s. In covering up a break-in by his party’s operatives at the Watergate complex, he revealed that everything said about him by his worst enemies was true.
[. . .]
From beginning to end, Schlesinger despised Nixon. In 1962, when Nixon brought out his self-revealing memoir, Six Crises, demonstrating that his main interest in life was judging how others saw him, Schlesinger wrote in his diary “I do not see how his political career can survive this book.” Schlesinger, while he served power-mad leaders, didn’t understand them. He couldn’t imagine that just six years later, in 1968, Nixon’s furious ambition would make him president and then get him re-elected to a second term, the one he failed to complete because Watergate made him the first American president ever to resign in disgrace, a fate even worse than Johnson’s.
Schlesinger’s book provides an accompaniment to this heartbreaking era of shame. It never fails to remind us that, no matter what theories the historians construct, the course of history is usually shaped by a few frail, frightened and often deeply damaged human beings.
February 5, 2012
After all this time, I doubt that anyone is particularly surprised by yet another revelation from the “Camelot” days of JFK’s presidency:
She always called him “Mr. President” — not Jack. He refused to kiss her on the lips when they made love. But Mimi Alford, a White House intern from New Jersey, was smitten nonetheless.
She was in the midst of an 18-month affair with the most powerful man in the world, sharing not only John F. Kennedy’s bed but also some of his darkest and most intimate moments.
In her explosive new tell-all, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, Alford, now a 69-year-old grandmother and retired New York City church administrator, sets the record straight in searingly candid detail. The book, out Wednesday was bought by The Post at a Manhattan bookstore.
October 2, 2011
As one of the best known non-Christians in public life, Penn Jillette is often asked about politicians who exploit their religious beliefs to score political points:
Christian used to be a throwaway word. People didn’t used to use it much. People didn’t start self-labeling or getting labeled Christian until the last part of the 20th century. Before that, you might identify as a Baptist, or a Southern Baptist or a Methodist. But there wasn’t one identifier that put you in a fold with all the other believers.
[. . .]
When I was a kid, politicians wanted to avoid talking about religion if they could. John F. Kennedy couldn’t duck the issue, being Catholic and all. So how did he address it? By reminding Americans that religion shouldn’t be an issue, that he was concentrating on big things like poverty and hunger and leading the space race.
When he finally got around to talking about religion, here’s what he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Can you imagine a presidential candidate talking that way today?
August 28, 2009
Virginia Postrel looks at the differences between the glamour of the JFK and RFK images and the non-glamorous career of Ted Kennedy:
Ted was the Kennedy who lived. He was, as a result, the Kennedy who wasn’t glamorous.
Jack is forever young and forever whatever his adoring fans imagine him to be: the president who would have gotten us out of Vietnam (rather than the one who got us in) or the original supply-sider (rather than a textbook Keynesian), the ideal combination of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. We learned decades ago about Jack’s compulsive womanizing, but it is those selective images of the beautiful family that remain in collective memory. Life recorded no adulteries, no dirty tricks, no secret injections. The JFK of memory is a man of vigor, not an Addison’s patient dependent on steroids, painkillers, and anti-spasmodics. He is the personification of political glamour.
Bobby, too, is glamorous — the tough guy turned symbol of youth and idealism, more photogenic than Gene McCarthy and more mythic. No one wonders how he would have held together the fractious Democratic Party of 1968, because he never had to. Like his brother, RFK is a persona, not a person, all hope and promise and projection.
In an age of cynicism and full disclosure, political glamour is a rarity — not because politicians lack good looks or wealth or celebrity but because we know too much about them. We too easily see their flaws and imagine even more than the flaws we do see.