iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
GET UPDATES FROM Richard Walter
 

The Kennedy Myth

Posted: 12/30/10 05:38 PM ET

Many have noted that when the new congress convenes it will be the first in sixty-four years without a Kennedy.

I preach to my screenwriting students that fantasy is for their movies. For their lives: reality. No political name in the last half century has been more romanticized and idealized than Kennedy.

In October of 1960, when I was a student at New York City's Stuyvesant High School, I happened upon a Kennedy election rally at Union Square. The gray, dreary, overcast day found thousands upon thousands of people gathered to hear the candidate. From a block away, among the overcoats and hats I could see clearly and brightly the president-to-be, his neon carrot-top a fiery contrast to the weather and national gloom. I was hugely excited. Kennedy delivered a brilliant speech brilliantly. Here was a mainstream political leader I could support with vigor and fervor.

A sober look at the record, however, argues that both JFK and RFK left legacies that were essentially sorry.

Under Kennedy the nation saw the largest peacetime expansion of the military budget until Reagan. The revenues were used among other purposes massively to expand the United States military presence in Vietnam.

Kennedy notoriously betrayed anti-Castro forces in the debacle called Bay of Pigs.

Does he not at least deserve credit for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis?

Respectfully, the Cuban missile crisis is a hoax, perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of public relations. Internationally, Khrushchev won the day, appearing conciliatory and peaceable, averting perceived American threats at the same time as he compelled Kennedy to withdraw our own missiles from the Soviet border in Turkey and Iran.

Civil rights?

The Kennedy White House may have served coffee to the leaders of the civil rights march on Washington, but the president opposed Martin Luther King and other black leaders for organizing the freedom bus rides and for a broad array of other civil rights activities. Nowhere did he show backbone that Eisenhower did, sending federal troops to protect black school children attempting to attend class in Arkansas. Instead of standing firm against bigots and bigotry, the Kennedy administration complained that the freedom riders brought unwelcome worldwide attention to the wretched state of civil rights. Kennedy called for 'both sides' to show restraint.

Both sides?

Here are the sides: 1) law abiding citizens seeking their constitutional rights; 2) racist arsonist criminals.

It was on brother Bobby's watch as Attorney General that Martin Luther King was illegally wiretapped. King's surreptitiously recorded personal indiscretions were offered up as entertainment for the in-crowd at Department of Justice parties.

It's all too well known that Bobby got his start in politics as lapdog to right wing hysterics Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy.

Clear into January of 1968 Robert Kennedy was an outspoken supporter of Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam. When another McCarthy, Eugene, demonstrated in New Hampshire that LBJ was vulnerable, however, Bobby promptly pulled a one-eighty. Had his interest in ending the war been sincere, Bobby could have supported McCarthy. Instead, in service to his own narcissism and lust for power he derailed the McCarthy campaign, dooming thereby tens of thousands of additional American troops to perish in this most misguided and dubious adventure.

Bobby's support of Caesar Chavez and the California farm workers may well be commendable on the surface, but was it in any manner connected to principle? Was it not based solely upon narrow self service and political calculation?

That the Kennedy administration was a failure is, of course, merely an opinion. It is not opinion but fact, however, that during his abbreviated presidency John Kennedy was singularly disliked. His approval ratings were dismal; indeed he barely won the election at all. Perhaps the only truth Richard Nixon ever spoke is that then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daly cooked the Cook County ballots, and in doing so delivered Illinois and the election to Kennedy.

Indeed, JFK's visit to Dallas on that fateful November day had been arranged in no small part because Texas Democrats LBJ and Governor John Connally had told him the only chance for winning the state in '64 required his visiting there in order to mend fences.

Some suggest that at the time of his murder he had finally found himself and was about to turn the corner and create a record that may have eventually proved affirmative. We can only guess about that. My own guess is that, had he lived, he may very well have found his footing and gone on to construct a legacy that was exemplary.

History shows, however, that the Kennedy administration was a supreme disappointment. If not for the assassination, John Fitzgerald Kennedy would look today a whole lot like James Earl Carter.


Richard Walter is a professor at UCLA where he chairs the graduate program in film and television writing. His latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, was published last summer. He is a pop culture commentator throughout the media, and a court authorized expert in intellectual property law.