Christopher Hitchens, who has made something of a fetish of knocking down iconic figures, believes that the “JFK cult” is finally dying of its own accord:

I may still be in a minority in this, and don’t care if I am, but I am glad to find that the Kennedy drama and the Kennedy cult is falling away into nothingness. The effort of keeping it up is too much trouble. It has been a long time since anyone rang me, or wrote to me, with hectic new information about the real scoop on the assassination. It has been a very long time since I heard anyone argue with conviction (let alone with evidence) that if the president had been spared that day we would not be referring to the Vietnam calamity as “Kennedy’s War.”


Had Napoleon Bonaparte been fatally hit by a musket ball as he entered Moscow, it was once pointed out, he would have been remembered by history as one of the greatest generals who ever lived. It would be cruel and unfeeling to say that Kennedy’s luck and “charisma” did not desert him even in death, and in any case I prefer to blame this callous opinion on those who actually hold it–namely his hagiographers and mythologists. Who now seriously believes that Kennedy intended to undo his own rash commitment in South Vietnam? Can we not at least agree that his zeal for the assassination of President Diem–whom he had installed at some price in blood–was a somewhat contradictory indicator of any intention to disengage?

That would make a point, as it were, for the “left.” But what of the pugnacious anticommunism that Kennedy also maintained when he thought it suited him? Having tried assassination and “deniable” invasion in Cuba, and having helped provoke a missile crisis on which he gambled all of us, he meekly acceded to the removal of American missiles from Turkey and to a pledge that Fidel Castro’s regime would be considered permanent. He and his brother did not completely hold to the terms of the latter agreement, it is true, but as a result the United States became indelibly associated with mob tactics in the Caribbean, and Castro became in effect the president for life. In this sense, we may say that the legacy of JFK is with us still.

Another inheritance from that period, the Berlin Wall–which he did not oppose until well after it had been built (having again risked war on the proposition but not felt able to follow up on his punchy short-term rhetoric)–did not disappear from our lives until a quarter century later. His was the worst hard-cop/soft-cop routine ever to be attempted, and it suffered from the worst disadvantages of both styles. On the civil rights front at home, by contrast, even the most flattering historians have a hard time explaining how the Kennedy brothers preferred the millimetrical, snail’s-pace, grudging-and-trudging strategy. But at least this serves to demonstrate that they knew there was such a thing as prudence, or caution.

Every smart liberal of today knows just how to deplore “spin” and “image building” and media strategy in general. Quite right too, but does anyone ever pause to ask when this manner of politics became regnant? Which Kennedy fan wants to disown the idea that the smoothest guy wins? Yet this awkward thought is gone into the memory hole, along with the fictitious “missile gap” that the boy wonder employed to attack Eisenhower and Nixon from the right. As I said at the beginning, I am glad that this spell is fading at last. But I wish its departure would be less mourned. The Kennedy interlude was a flight from responsibility, and ought to be openly criticized and exorcised rather than be left to die the death that sentimentality brings upon itself.

Given that my parents were a few months from meeting when Kennedy was assassinated, I don’t have a dog in this fight. What has long struck me as odd, though, is the strange fascination we have with the anniversary of his murder. Lincoln–a far more significant president–was also felled by an assassin’s bullet. Yet we commemorate his birthday (sort of), not his death.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Seems like a hell of a lot of effort over someone whose biggest claim to fame was that he looked good on T.V.

    But I must say, I laugh that he is considered a liberal (democrat) icon.

    Today he would be run out of the Democratic party so fast his head would spin.

    “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” What kind of Dem would say that today?

    Cutting taxes to help the economy? Not a dem alive would do that now a days.

    Saying that America is the greatest country on the planet and we should keep it that way? What the hell kind of right wing extremist was he?

  2. Meezer says:

    When “we” (the ones who “remember where they were” are all gone, he will become to history the kind of president he actually *was.* It was a searing moment; seeing the president assasinated before our eyes. Much tragic water has gone under the bridge since then. It would not seem so shocking now, sad to say. We have seen too much.

  3. McGehee says:

    It is, of course, the impact of television.

    Some people might have always remembered where they were when they first heard that Lincoln had been shot, but that would have occurred at widely different times and there would have been no way to have the “shared experience” (which obviously it wouldn’t have been) reinforced into a major pop-culture phenomenon like the days and days of JFK coverage in November 1963.

    I was 23 months old on that day, so I have no memory of it. I believe radio made Pearl Harbor something similar — I remember my mother telling in detail about first hearing that news.

    That’s instantaneous mass communication for you.

  4. James Joyner says:

    True on the impact of TV. Indeed, 9/11 wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact if we weren’t watching it unfold live.

  5. I sort of agree with Meezer – I will be glad when all the boomers have died off since I am really tired of hearing about Kennedy, Woodstock and all the other 60s BS that is meaningless to the vast majority of Americans (the age of an average American is in the lower 30s). The only reason that this stuff is kept alive is that the main people pulling the levers at the networks and big media are boomers themselves, so it’s important to them, if not the rest of the country.

    Ofcourse, statistically I will be exiting just a decade or two after all the boomers, so I won’t be able to enjoy it for very long.