JFK post script: Cronkite, Perlstein and more
There has been a lot of great documentary footage about the JFK assassination today. I've been particularly interested in this CBS "live stream" of the footage in real time on the day. I've been watching it off and on all day and it's fascinating. (You can also see some of the highlights at the site.)
But this piece by Rick Perlstein about the posthumous invention of "Camelot" is a real blockbuster. He begins by talking about 1963:
The Life magazine dated November 22, 1963, which would have arrived on newsstands around November 15, featured a terrifying story by Theodore White, author of the groundbreaking bestseller The Making of the President 1960. Entitled "Racial Collision," and subtitled "the Negro-white problem is greatest in the North where the Negro is taking over the cities—and being strangled by them," it was a terrifying intimation of an imminent racial holocaust. The first of two parts, the conclusion second ran in the issue of Life dated November 29—which ordinarily would have appeared on newsstands on November 22 but was held back to put the martyred President Kennedy on the cover, and to include, inside, several thousands words of what must have been some very speedily written copy about his death. That second part was even scarier. It reported terrors like Adam Clayton Powell calling for "'a Birmingham explosion in New York City' this fall"; Communist infiltration of Martin Luther King's inner circle; a civil rights group that feared it would be labeled "a front for the white man" unless a peaceful march was turned into “a violent putsch on government offices"; and that some protesters were calling for cash reparations for slavery—"There is a warning if such sin-gold is not paid by white Americans to black Americans, the 'power structure' is inviting 'social chaos.'" And it quoted James Forman of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reaching the following unsettling conclusion: "85% of all Negroes do not adhere to nonviolence."
It felt like riots were breaking out everywhere.
On September 15, Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen, killing four little girls.
In Dallas, on October 24, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson was shouted down, spat upon, and physically assaulted on the street by right-wingers.
In Saigon, on November 2, South Vietnam's president Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a U.S- backed coup.
And in Dallas, on November 22, President Kennedy was supposed to give a speech addressing the widespread feeling that America had become a very scary place, specifically as regarded the 1963 version of Tea Partiers, who had become so scary that many people presumed that they had been the ones that shot him...
But Jackie Kennedy didn't want that reality to be the context for her husband's martyrdom:
"Mrs. Kennedy wanted [Teddy] White to rescue her husband's memory from these men. History should celebrate the Kennedy years as a time of hope and magic, she insisted. White sat mesmerized for more than two hours, listening t the rambling and disjointed monologue.... She sneered at the 'bitter old men' who wrote history." (That's me!) "Finally, she came to the thought that had become her obsession, a thought embodied in the lyrics of the the Broadway musical—Camelot. Over and over again, she and the president had listened to the words sing out of their ten-year-old Victrola..."
What came next is pretty damned astonishing, a nadir in the history of court journalism, sometimes that better belongs in the annals of the Kremlin. White retreated around midnight to draft his article in the maid's room, "mindful that Life was holding its presses at a cost of thirty thousand dollars an hour. When he finished, Mrs. Kenendy took a pencil to White's work, crossing out some of his words and adding her own in the margins. She hovered near the kitchen telephone—adamant that her Camelot portrayal remain the dominant theme—as he dictated the revised version to his editors." The article came out. Arthur Schelsinger, baffled, said, "Jack Kennedy never spoke of Camelot." One Kennedy hand said, "If Jack Kennedy heard this stuff about Camelot, he would have vomited."
It goes on to show just how corrupting this ended up being. What we know of the Village today really began in earnest with the press' agreement to go along with the fatuous notion of an American Camelot in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times in its history.
He also makes another important observation about how the press corps works: in one way or another they are always fighting the last war. In this case, it's Teddy White feeling bad about his naked partisanship in 1960 (and becoming alarmed by America's youthful hooliganism, no doubt) and going to great lengths to make it up to Nixon in 1968. And guess where that little bit of journalistic malpractice led?
Indeed it was largely the clubbiness of the Washington village press corps that let Nixon get away with Watergate and still win his landslide in 1972. (Read Tim Crouse's Boys on the Bus for the full story.) Call it Camelot's revenge: the class of court scribes who made it their profession to uphold a make-believe version of America free of conflict and ruled by noble men helped Nixon get away with it for so long—because, after all, America was ruled by noble men.
Don't let that be forgot. For who knows what latter-day sycophants and suck-ups in the media might let our leaders get away with next.
Update: Also, here's a very interesting back and forth between Rick Perlstein and James Galbraith on the question of whether Kennedy really was committed to getting out of Vietnam.
It's been a great day for history buffs, that's for sure.
Update II: On the other hand, the circumstances of the assassination aren't weird enough to defend this nuttiness.