As a family, the Kennedys of Massachusetts have captured America’s imagination for over 100 years. Who among us does not have an instant image in our mind’s eye of one or more defining Kennedy moments? The Kennedy Nixon debate of 1960, with the razor sharp, handsome young JFK soundly drubbing his sweaty, twitchy rival Richard Nixon. Inauguration Day, with Robert Frost’s poignant words, and Kennedy’s too. Little John-John, playing under a desk, at the feet of the leader of the free world, pretty Caroline on a pony, smiling young men sailing at Hyannis Port. The images are lovely, moving; glimpses of a young, beautiful family at ease in its wealth, power, and relevance. These little snapshots are all the more evocative for their shocking, teary-eyed conclusion: a car on a plaza, a gun in a window, a woman scrambling across the trunk of a car. The nation sat riveted for those infamous four days in November watching new images of the once smiling Kennedy boys, shoulders bowed with sadness; seeing those laughing children newly somber.
November 22, 1963 has often been called the day that America lost its innocence, and maybe it was. More likely, it was a handy bookend, the grey area between a period of easy entitlement and the beginning of an era of tough realizations: we as a nation were not invincible; the Soviet Union was already ascendant. Our internal struggles would not be solved easily nor disappear; the Civil Rights movement was becoming powerful and race riots would consume inner cities across the country in just a few short years. Politicians were not infallible and the press would not always look the other way: Vietnam and Watergate would ensure that Presidents would never be trusted the same way again.
In the long decades since the Kennedy assassination, much has befallen the Kennedy family, and many of those events have brought them low, both in relevance and in power. Rape trials, Chappaquiddick, failed campaigns, drunken revelry, and an ever increasing divide between the top 1% and the rest of us have all conspired to tarnish, though never break, the mystique. Long gone is the era when Kennedy equaled politics in the American lexicon. We think of them now not as powerbrokers but as symbols, not as relevant but as timeless.
The announcement this week that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Representative Patrick Kennedy endorse Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for president caused a sensation, drawing the inevitable comparisons between Barack Obama and John Kennedy, between this coarse time of ours and that longed for era of Camelot. Are these comparisons valid? Matt Bai argues here that we should not be looking for another Camelot, and Ted Widmer has excellent points on why BHO and JFK are not even in the same league. I can only say that to most Americans the Kennedys lost their relevance, if not their mystique, decades ago, and the somewhat ham-fisted way that the (non-elected) members of the family chose to express their preference this time around only underscores once more how far the family has fallen from infallible strategists to mindless media hangers-on. The fact that this endorsement has been trumpeted high and low, while the other half of the same family that endorsed Hillary Clinton has received virtually no coverage serves to point out, again, that the media has created its own narrative of this race and will use its soapbox to ensure that it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. In this era of celebrity watching and short attention spans, it is easier for media conglomerates to sell the nation a youthful smooth talking candidate than a familiar face with positions that can’t be condensed into four word slogans, so that is who the media is selling. I think I am just shocked that the Kennedys, born into politics, weaned on polls, and brought up in the glare of the media spotlight, bought it. They, after all, know the reality behind each of those iconic images: the squabbles, the context, and the secrets. In other words, the truth. They know, perhaps better than anyone, that an image can’t be trusted.