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Kennedy Week: The Myth of Camelot and the Dangers of Sycophantic Consensus Journalism | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Kennedy Week: The Myth of Camelot and the Dangers of Sycophantic Consensus Journalism

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. Titled “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 ran in the issue 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 thousand 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’s call for “ ‘a Birmingham explosion in New York City’ this fall”; Communist infiltration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle; a civil rights group’s fears that it would be labeled “a front for the white man” unless a peaceful march was turned into “a violent putsch on government offices”; and some protesters&rssquo; demand 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.”

Such foreboding was entirely typical of that very tense summer and fall—and the culmination of fears that had been mounting ever since the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and the Oxford, Mississippi, crisis of 1961 and 1962. The fear escalated after Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 unleashed what felt to whites like an uncontainable torrent of black rage across the country: in Columbus, Ohio, two men chained themselves to furniture in the state Capitol; in Boston, a black parent told the segregationist city school board “it is too late for pleading, begging, requesting, or even reasoning.” Whites thereby reacted against the rage: George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama. Medgar Evers was shot. Barry Goldwater began looking good to Republicans—and rival bands of Goldwaterites turned the Young Republican National Federation’s convention into a near-riot.

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 US- 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. “In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations,” ran the text he was killed before he could deliver, “voices are heard in the land…preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that…vituperation is as good as victory and peace is a sign of weakness…. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants, far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.”

This was the world that Theodore White, in his next article in Life after his near-prediction of race war proclaimed, until the day John F. Kennedy was killed, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

* * *

The story of how the myth of Camelot was invented is wonderfully told in a great little book from 1995 that I’ve never seen referenced before, Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion, by media scholar Joyce Hoffman. It begins:

Theodore H. White was in a dentist’s chair on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a Friday morning in late November 1963, when he learned that Jacqueline Kennedy had telephoned to say she needed him. One week had passed since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, and now his widow was beseeching the journalist, whom she considered an old friend, to come to Hyannisport. She had something she wanted Life magazine to say to America, and White, she insisted, had to bear the message…. She had summoned White because she was angry, very angry. All week newspaper pundits had served up their instant appraisals of the brief and abruptly ended Kennedy administration. Arthur Krock’s New York Times column had especially rankled her…a lament about the failure of ‘even advanced democracy and self-government to extirpate in mankind the resort to anarchy…. Walter Lippmann’s “Today and Tomorrow’” column just four days after the assassination had spoken of the forces of hatred and ungovernability and how “habit of intemperate speech and thought had become deeply ingrained. It is deepened by the strains of war and the frustrations of this revolutionary age.”

In other words, commentators commentated accurately on the mood of the country. But “Mrs. Kennedy wanted 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 to 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, something 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 $30,000 an hour. When he finished, Mrs. Kennedy 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 Schlesinger, baffled, said, “Jack Kennedy never spoke of Camelot.” One Kennedy hand said, “If Jack Kennedy heard this stuff about Camelot, he would have vomited.”

The whole thing is a great object lesson in the horrors of access journalism—and access history. (“The notes of White’s interview with Jacqueline Kennedy,” writes Joyce Hoffman, “known as the ‘Camelot Papers,’ which White donated to the John F. Kennedy library in 1969, remained under restriction until May 19, 1995, one year after the death of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.”) If you hate the kind of writing Bob Woodward does now; if you hate Politico or, going back further, if you hate the kind of things Sally Quinn wrote on Monicagate (“ ‘He came in here and he trashed the place,’ says Washington Post columnist David Broder, ‘and it’s not his place.’ ”), or the childish abuse and systematic distortions meted out to Al Gore in 2000 because he didn’t fit into the Washington insiders’ village, blame Camelot—or “Camelot.” If you heard the public radio documentary this morning We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archive and were as astonished as I was at how many journalists blithely based their admiration for the thirty-sixth president on the nice cocktails he and “Jackie” poured in the White House, or if you’ve seen David Auburn’s neat Broadway play from last year, The Columnist, which depicts the incestuous coziness between Joseph Alsop and John F. Kennedy, you know what I mean.

Teddy White, about whom I have complicated feelings, was a crucial conveyor belt in advancing this awful cultural trend—“High Broderism,” some of our better bloggers used to call it—and Hoffman’s book is an important primer for anyone who wants to learn how it happened. A child of Boston’s Jewish ghetto, Teddy (or, in his parents’ Yiddish-speaking mouths, “Tuddy”) White made his way as a scholarship boy to Harvard, where he came to identify with the clubby culture of the WASP with the zeal of the convert, with all the pseudo-aristocratic abuses of democratic culture that entailed. “White’s style of journalism,” Hoffman explains, “fit a model established by a generation of influential column and reporters who had functioned as a subsidiary of government during World War II and the postwar years…a patriot first and a journalist second.”

Twenty-five years before his “Camelot” coup, she notes, “he had written stories from China that had portrayed Chiang Kai-shek as a similarly heroic character.” Then he realized he was wrong, but it was too late—he had helped create the Frankenstein’s monster’s of America’s romance with Chiang, and thus the McCarthyite reaction to China’s fall to Communism, too; he then had to watch helplessly as that reaction devoured some of his friends. Hoffman argues White then helped created the myth of the presidency itself as some sort of American regency. He was the first to capitalize “Oval Office.” She tells an amazing story of how an interview with Kennedy there, for the last chapter of Making of the President, in which the new president, in his underwear being fitted for a suit, gossips altogether un-presidentially, coarsely insults Nixon and obsesses over how much money White will make on his book. Out of that unpromising raw material, White crafted a panegyric to a godlike man who commanded the eighteen-button telephone console on his desk like “the sword and the mace in the politics of the middle ages.”

White had identified so closely with JFK on the 1960 campaign trail that he wore a Kennedy campaign button. When the manuscript was complete, he showed it to both “Bobby” and “Jack,” acceding to RFK’s requested revisions. He didn’t extend the same courtesy to Nixon. But then again, Nixon didn’t invite Teddy White to his cocktail parties. Here’s a diary entry from 1962: “Mad night at Bobby’s great fun. He set the Caroline [the Kennedys’ pet name for Air Force One] up from Washington, we got aboard at 5:00 followed by Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie…”

This sort of thing had real consequences for the country. It is one of the Big Ideas of my first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, that just this sort of consensus-besotted denial of the roiling tensions beneath America’s consensus facade in the early 1960s—the time “before the storm”—made the storms of the later 1960s so much nastier than they would have been, had Americans been better been prepared to accept the ineluctably divisive reality of American life. Instead, the tension burst forth like the return of the repressed.

Anyway, here’s a new Big Idea: journalist sycophants like White helped give us Watergate.

Consider: White felt so guilty at having slighted Nixon in Making of the President 1960 that he turned Making of the President 1968 into a virtual love letter to him, and sent him the book with a fulsome apology. Making of the President 1972 sucked up to Nixon even worse. But then, oops—I discovered this in research for the book I’m finishing now—White had to postpone publication so he could tack on a chapter about a little thing called Watergate, whose seriousness caught him completely by surprise.

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.

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