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