Monday, November 28

Hell, If Newt Gingrich Is An Historian, Everybody's An Historian

Ross Douthat, "The Enduring Cult of Kennedy". November 27

FOR starters, could we please be quit of Douthats, and Goldbergs, and Ben Shapiros (if we aren't quit of him already) recapitulating their parents' wingnuttery, uncomprehendingly, like children playing Ring Around the Rosy recapitulating the bubonic plague? * Ross Douthat doesn't know what happened in the 80s. So now he's going to correct the record on JFK? Or just unknowingly admit the font of most of his understanding?
No matter how many times the myths of Camelot are seemingly interred by history, they always come shambling back to life — in another television special, another Vanity Fair cover story, another hardcover hagiography.

If you get bored, just do what I did: substitute "Jesus" for every mention of Kennedy.
It’s fitting, then, that the latest exhumation comes courtesy of Stephen King himself. King serves a dual role in our popular culture: He’s at once the master of horror and the bard of the baby boom, writing his way through the twilit borderlands where the experiences of the post-World War II generation are stalked by nightmares and shadowed by metaphysical dread.

Y'know, Ross, you're over thirty now, a family man, so perhaps it's time you either stopped behaving like a dick, or took it up full time and tried to become proficient.

The Boomer shit, well, maybe it was clever, in a sallow fashion, back when your beard was the envy of your fellow underclassmen, but look, it's time you started thinking for yourself. Stephen King is a highly successful writer of pulp horror and sci-fi born in 1947. The latter fact makes him a Boomer; the former gives him more in common with a later generation which insists on salving its extended adolescence by calling comic books "graphic novels". If Stephen King was some sort of Bard to my generation I'd accept it. Never read the man, but I heard him talking about horror movies on Turner last month, and he was thoughtful and insightful. Meanwhile, there's plenty of political stuff in the works of Thomas Pynchon, or Don DeLillo, neither of whom depends on mass-market paperback sales to supply him with heft. Not that I'd advise you to step up in weight class.

Incidentally, he's a little tip about insults: if you have to strain to manage it, at least try to do so with a smile, and certainly not with some freshman bullshit about metaphysical dread. And if you have to doubly strain--making Stephen King a bard and a Boomer icon, say--it's really best to just shut th' fuck up.
At its best, King’s new Kennedy assassination novel, “11/22/63” — which sends its protagonist back in time to change that November day’s events — offers an implicit critique of this generational obsession. (I am not giving much away when I reveal that the time-traveling hero does not succeed in freeing ’60s America from the cruel snares of history.)

Oh, Ross, you're always giving more away than you realize.
But its narrative power still depends on accepting the false premises of the Kennedy cult — premises that will no doubt endure so long as the 1960s generation does, but still deserve to be challenged at every opportunity.

Go ahead; at least it means a break in the Reagan hagiographies. But look, Ross-o; the oldest goddam Boomer on the planet had just turned seventeen when Kennedy was shot. Boomers are no more responsible for the Camelot myth than you are for the Clinton impeachment.
The first premise is that Kennedy was a very good president, and might have been a great one if he’d lived. Few serious historians take this view: It belongs to Camelot’s surviving court stenographers, and to popularizers like Chris Matthews, whose new best seller “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” works hard to gloss over the thinness of the 35th president’s actual accomplishments. Yet there is no escaping the myth’s hold on the popular imagination. In Gallup’s “greatest president” polling, J.F.K. still regularly jostles with Lincoln and Reagan for the top spot.

Oh, yeah, but Reagan being up there is evidence of sound and solid historical awareness.

Shit. Blah-blah Vietnam, blah-blah Civil Rights, blah-blah Bay of Pigs. I'm not dismissing those because there's nothing to them. I'm dismissing them because Ross Douthat has picked them up like a bum cadges a half-eaten sandwich. People can worship Kennedy, or Reagan, or Martin Van Buren; the can write books where the South wins the Civil War or Rommel rolls into Glasgow, but it doesn't make 'em smart. The fact that people beatify Kennedy doesn't make him any less of a man, the same way the canonization of Reagan hasn't made him any less of an idiot. The question of whether JFK would have "come to his senses" over Vietnam (and it's highly unlikely: Johnson knew the war was doomed before he escalated it; the anti-Commie domestic politics of the day demanded it, especially of a Democratic president) is an empty exercise. It's the United States which bought itself that particular quagmire, and it's managed several more since then, without Kennedy's help. Did he believe that the weight of US military intervention would ultimately defeat the Vietnamese? Yeah. So does half the country forty years after it was emphatically disproven. Was he a slow-moving hypocrite on Civil Rights? Yes. And a politician. But I repeat myself. But ask African-American Boomers what they thought of Kennedy, Ross. Or what their parents thought. Does he deserve all the praise that's been heaped upon him? No man does. Obsequies are always mixed with infusion of poppy. So what? The Kennedy myth harks to the end of an era when American imperialism could still be thought of (erroneously) as a force for Good; compare the ugly worship of George W. Bush while in office. Compare the Great Society and Civil Rights legislation which traded, in no small part, on his interrupted legacy--throw in the enormity of Vietnam, too--with the destruction of international prestige and domestic economy that resulted from the Nixon and Reagan presidencies.

Bobby Kennedy survived to fulfill those silly Boomer promises of change before that, too, was cut short. Ted Kennedy, whatever his failures as a legislator and a man, remained a champion of liberal ideals when there was a bounty on 'em. Where's the comparable legacy of all the Reagan foofaraw? Shouting on AM radio, or filling its own pockets. Or worrying about someone else's rewrite of history when its own is nothing but fiction.


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* Which I doubt they are, in fact, but that's a much longer footnote than I have the time, or you the patience, for.

10 comments:

Dave said...

and it's highly unlikely: Johnson knew the war was doomed before he escalated it; the anti-Commie domestic politics of the day demanded it, especially of a Democratic president)

~~~

That.

I slogged through the best and the brightest and was left with (or Helberstam left me with) the spirit of that but I was never able to articulate it so succinctly.

prairie curmudgeon said...

"and it's highly unlikely: Johnson knew the war was doomed before he escalated it; the anti-Commie domestic politics of the day demanded it, especially of a Democratic president"

and tragically, I hazard to argue, Kennedy, trapped in the group think of his day, was sacrificed in that toxic brew, but that sacrifice brought no salvation to the 58,000 who would follow Kennedy to the grave.

And of those 58,000, mostly boomers, how many of them might have entered politics and preempted the presidency of GW? Or would they too have been caught up in similar politics, shaped by hysteria and fear of being out militarized by the Republicans, that brought several of the democratic boomers to vote for the Iraq war resolution?

And the Camelot bullshit? It was more mystique than myth, an identity that our still young parents of the Greatest Generation attached to as they nurtured us young boomers in that mixed atmosphere of plenty (for the fortunates) and mounting crises for all -- shits, grins and dread.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Luckily, we're beyond that.

No Democratic politician today would be forced** to commit to attacking the Likud party's enemies...

** Assuming he or she wants to win an election.
~

KWillow said...

King writes a good yarn, my Dad used to say. Many of his books are what women call "Comfort Reads". Salem's Lot was really scary; it borrowed a bit from Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House", but Mr. King is open about that.

I fing his books to be quintessentially American. Future historians will learn a lot about American culture and thought processes, fears and hopes, from his books.

KWillow said...

AAKKK! I find his books... etc.

R. Porrofatto said...

Yeah, it's more than unlikely that Kennedy would have refrained from escalating our overt military involvement in Vietnam. Pundits tend to forget that the early 60's was Cold War time, and jumping into this particular anti-commie hot water was extremely popular with most Americans at the time when it looked easy and not at all like quicksand. Kennedy would have had to buck a lot of public opinion to not escalate and risk "losing" Vietnam in the Big Domino Game, which would have taken a measure of political courage I've never seen in a politician. Even by '68, when opposition to the war was getting serious, the country elected the Dick who befouled the Paris peace accords, guaranteeing we would never know what Humphrey would've done either, not to mention a half dozen more years of war and death.

Jonah Goldberg is an historian. So, Newt?

El Manqu├ęcito said...

My helping of obsequies came with entirely too little infusion of poppy.

heydave said...

I envision Ross writing such stuff while sitting glumly in an overloaded Depends diaper. Explains a lot.

Anonymous said...

If memory serves, more Americans died in the VN War under Nixon than under Kennedy or LBJ. Also, under Nixon it threatened to broaden into a much more regional conflict as he dragged peripheral countries into the conflict and destabilized already unstable governments

mark drago said...

once again: Amen, Doghouse...pithy summarization of JFK, and well said-- the poppy bit. Douthat? god help us-- in that, as with "Eff" Will, he puts some sort of sheen on stupidity