The Camelot delusion: John F Kennedy’s legacy 50 years on

Tears are cheap and so, to a certain extent, are words. Deeds are what counts and on that score Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, says David Runciman.

To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace
Jeffrey Sachs
Bodley Head, 272pp, £14.99

JFK’s Last Hundred Days: an Intimate Portrait of a Great President
Thurston Clarke
Allen Lane, 448pp, £20

Luck plays a big part in presidents’ reputations – and not just in terms of what happens while they are in office (wars give presidents a boost; financial crises don’t). There is also the luck of who writes their biographies once they have gone. In this respect, the luckiest president of the past century has been Lyndon Johnson, the subject of a monumental, multivolume labour of love by the pre-eminent political biographer Robert Caro that has redeemed the ex-president’s reputation. Caro’s LBJ emerges as the ultimate fixer, a politician who knew better than anyone how to get his way in the vipers’ nest of Washington. Because of Caro, it’s Johnson’s wiles that people look to when they ask how Barack Obama could do better in his dealings with Congress.

As LBJ’s stock has risen, that of his predecessor has fallen. John F Kennedy has become the man who merely talked about the transformative legislative programme that Johnson turned into reality. Seen in LBJ’s large shadow, Kennedy is a glamorous but slight figure, the crowd-pleasing playboy president. He was brave, attractive and ambitious, yet ultimately ineffectual.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, his admirers are trying to reverse this picture. The anti-Caro story has two basic elements. First, it turns on the assassination. Yes, LBJ did what JFK didn’t but that’s only because Kennedy wasn’t around to finish the job. Kennedy was just growing into his presidency when it was cruelly cut short. Second, the story focuses on foreign policy, which was Kennedy’s strength and Johnson’s weakness. LBJ’s achievements were domestic. The final, as yet unpublished volume of Caro’s biography will have to tell the tragic coda that is the terrible mess Johnson made of Vietnam. Kennedy’s presidency ended at its most hopeful phase, just as he was finding ways to move beyond the stale and terrifying logic of cold war confrontation that had taken the world to the brink of catastrophe in the Cuban missile crisis. In 1963, it looked as though Kennedy had stumbled on the path to a more peaceful future. Johnson was the man who stumbled off it.

Kennedy’s quest for safer relations with the Russians during the last year of his life is the subject of Jeffrey Sachs’s slim book, which celebrates the speeches Kennedy gave in the summer of 1963 about war, peace and the means of moving from one to the other. The centrepiece of this story is the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), a nuclear arms control agreement that Kennedy signed into law in October 1963. It was the proudest achievement of his presidency up to that point.

Sachs believes that this was a sure indicator of things to come, the first step towards stable and secure coexistence between the superpowers. Sachs is an economist, not a historian. His book is not biography but hagiography. He treats Kennedy as a moral visionary, the only man who possessed the gifts of oratory and character necessary to change the course of history at this perilous moment. It is from Kennedy’s example that Sachs thinks we must learn if we are to save ourselves.

His case rests on two assumptions. The first is that treaties matter. The LTBT was only what it said it was: limited. It prohibited further nuclear testing in space or underwater but permitted it underground. It had been watered down from something more comprehensive, first by Nikita Khrushchev’s qualms about international oversight and then by the misgivings of the US joint chiefs about the Russians. Charles de Gaulle refused to sign it. (The French have always been pathetically proud of their nuclear arsenal.)

However, Sachs is probably right when he argues it was a landmark moment. It signalled that the US and the Soviets could agree on something substantial. At the same time, it showed that a US president could get such an agreement past the Senate, which had a habit of shooting down plans for peace (Kennedy was haunted by Woodrow Wilson’s failure to get the Senate to ratify the League of Nations in 1919, with all that followed). Kennedy secured ratification of the LTBT by the impressive margin of 80 votes to 19. It opened the door to the subsequent ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was approved by the Senate in 1969 and has been vital in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons around the globe.

Sachs’s other contention is that speeches actually matter. This is much more dubious. He believes that Kennedy’s oratory in 1963 – above all, the “peace speech” he delivered at American University in Washington, DC on 10 June that year – was crucial in persuading Russia’s leaders, US politicians and people all over the world that the time was right for a sea change in international affairs. Sachs devotes much of his book to analysing Kennedy’s rhetoric line by line, talking up its logic, its beauty and its power to move. Yet he provides no evidence that it made the vital difference, beyond how it stirred him as a boy and stirs him still. Sachs is not Khrushchev (boy, is he not Khrushchev). His approach is extraordinarily literal-minded: he assumes that politicians say what they mean and then do what they say. When Kennedy says it’s time for peace and then the Soviets sign a peace treaty, Sachs concludes that it must be because they have been persuaded by whatKennedy has said. When Pravda agrees to publish a transcript of Kennedy’s speech, it must be because the Kremlin wants the Russian people to be similarly persuaded. Sachs does not consider that political speechmaking might simply be the ornamental side of political negotiation. It’s the icing on the cake. Sachs mistakes it for the cake.

What his book lacks is any sense of political context. He recognises that it was the near calamity of the Cuban missile crisis that persuaded both sides to look for alternatives. Yet he takes for granted that this took the form of turning away from war to peace. The terror for both sides had been not so much the risk of Armageddon as the temporary loss of control. For a short while, the two superpowers were groping in the dark without anything to cling on to. The LTBT and above all the NPT were ways of reasserting control and putting them back in charge. The treaties limited the ability of others to get nuclear weapons but they didn’t stop the superpowers from ramping up their own arsenals or pursuing proxy wars around the globe.

Sachs wants us to learn from the president’s vision for peace – but if the Cuban missile crisis was, for Kennedy, the precondition for achieving it, how can we follow his lead without a near-death experience of our own? Sachs is surely right that the world needs another prod in the direction of justice. But early-1960s oratory without the early-1960s context isn’t going to do it.

Sachs ignores how Kennedy’s decision to focus on foreign affairs in 1963 was not without cost. It came at the expense of doing other, equally urgent things. The great merit of Thurston Clarke’s account of the last 100 days in office is that it encompasses both sides of Kennedy: the statesman and the chancer; the moralist and the opportunist. Like Sachs, Clarke celebrates Kennedy’s great achievement in getting the LTBT past the Senate. In his account, however, it was done by calling in political favours that could not then get cashed in elsewhere. Forcing the treaty through came at the expense of a concerted push on civil rights legislation: you can’t call in favours twice. It was, Clarke writes, “a choice between ethics and history”. Kennedy, a vain and, when he needed to be, coldhearted man, chose history.

Clarke burnishes the Kennedy image as best he can yet this is still, compared to Sachs’s book, a warts-and-all portrait. We see Kennedy the insatiable womaniser: when, on her first visit to the White House, the 60-yearold Marlene Dietrich tells him she can only stay half an hour, he leads her to the bedroom, saying they had better get on with it. We see Kennedy the bully, the prankster, the whiner and the narcissist. After dinner, he shows his bemused and bored guests the film of his presidential debates with Richard Nixon. He weighs himself after every swim, terrified that he is turning into a jowly, middle-aged man. He turns the charm on and off like a light switch.

Nevertheless, Clarke is convinced that this was a great man cut down at the moment of his greatest potential. He repeats the basics of the anti-Caro line. First, he insists that Kennedy would have passed his own comprehensive civil rights legislation in his second term. Second, he argues that Kennedy had seen the folly of his Vietnam escapade and was determined to get out: he was just waiting for the right moment, which would come with his re-election.

Is this plausible? Presidents invariably think they will achieve in their second term what they failed to do in their first but it rarely happens like that. First terms are when the heavy lifting gets done. Kennedy kept talking up what he was going to do – “after 1964” became his mantra in 1963 – but he was also an inveterate ditherer who made sure there was always a get-out clause. Would it ever have been the right moment to cut his losses in Vietnam? And there is no evidence that he knew how to get round the openly racist Southern bloc in the Senate. In 1963, he sounded more like someone who had parked comprehensive civil rights legislation than a politician who knew how to accomplish it. The day after his peace speech, he gave a powerful talk on civil rights – but he also told black civil rights leaders that they should learn to be more like the Jews and focus on education as the path to improvement.

As distasteful as it is, think what Obama’s reputation would be if his first term had been cut short three years in and Joe Biden had inherited the keys to the White House. The messy compromise of health-care reform would be viewed as the first step on the road to a much more comprehensive triumph. Obama would be the man who was going to get out of Afghanistan once and for all, who was going to make the tough but moral choices on terrorism, drones and Guantanamo, who was waiting to use his re-election to face down Congress. His second term would be reimagined as the promised golden age, instead of what it looks like today –a hard, joyless slog to nowhere in particular. There is no reason to suppose Kennedy’s would have been any different.

Clarke also wants us to think that Kennedy was about to repair his marriage when his life was cut short. In August, the Kennedys had lost their son Patrick, who was born prematurely and died after a few days. Like the Cuban missile crisis, the terror and pathos of this event had the effect of drawing the warring parties together. Would it have lasted? Given the character of the protagonists, that seems unlikely. Kennedy was a sentimentalist, capable of great warmth and emotion, but he was also a selfish brute, and marriage lasts a long time. His last 100 days were probably the best of his marriage as they were of his presidency. Still, it was only 100 days.

Clarke cites as evidence of how much Kennedy meant to people and how much his passing mattered that, in an unsentimental age, when it was unusual to shed tears in public and unthinkable for many men, so many cried when they heard of the president’s assassination. A Gallup survey disclosed that 53 per cent of Americans had wept in the days following his death. Clarke claims that there is nothing comparable to this. But there is. Countless Britons cried in the days after the death of Diana, another glamorous and empathetic narcissist. They shed tears because ordinary people felt a connection to the princess and shared a feeling that her death represented the loss of some unspoken promise. That doesn’t make the promise real. Tears are cheap and so, to a certain extent, are words. Deeds are what counts and on that score Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, like most of the others.

David Runciman is a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. His book “The Confidence Trap” (Princeton University Press, £19.95) will be published in October

John F Kennedy in 1961. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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