Myths matter. They are important in all societies. They help create, define, and preserve the values and institutions we deem important. They provide structure and stability. Myths present themselves in many forms and sometimes as people who were once politicians but somehow became much, much more. The Americans are quite good at myth-making. Abraham Lincoln became a myth; his deeds and character recalled in hushed, reverent tones as a model for citizenship and a reflection of all that is good about an entire people. The most recent of American politician-myth is President John F. Kennedy. His youth, looks, vigour, promise, and the degree to which he inspired hope and optimism, coupled with the Shakespearean tragedy of his bloody and public death, rendered his elevation from man to myth almost inevitable. That transition is instructive and important for us today.
The public murder of a man who represented so much to so many, and by such a puny little assassin, was incomprehensible and overwhelming. People who had never met or even seen him wept as if a family member had passed away. I’m old enough to recall arriving home from Grade Two to find my mother weeping before the television. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. French president Charles De Galle said, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France. It is as if he were a Frenchman, a member of their own family.” In London, famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier interrupted a performance and had the audience stand as the orchestra played the American national anthem. Other Londoners stood in the multi-coloured glow of Piccadilly Circus neon and openly sobbed.
Canada declared November 23 to 29 an official period of mourning. Polish churches were crowded on its national day of mourning, and the Nicaraguan government declared a week of mourning. Flags were dropped to half-staff in Ottawa and other world capitals, including Moscow. In the United States and around the globe, airports, schools, streets, libraries, public squares, and more were renamed after him. In the Canadian Yukon, a 14,000-foot snow-peaked mountain became Mount Kennedy.
Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, was shattered by the murder of her husband, killed just inches from her side, but at the moment of the unspeakable violence, she understood what would happen and what she wanted to shape. She took charge. She arranged for the state funeral to reflect Lincoln’s. She insisted on an eternal flame at his grave and that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from Washington which, since the Civil War, had become a revered burial place for veterans. She chose a hilltop location overlooking the city that the president had actually visited and declared a fine spot to be placed at rest.
From a popular play addressing the legend of King Arthur, she coined the name Camelot – that mystical place of missed opportunity, to describe her husband’s thousand-day presidency. Kennedy’s brother Robert also moved quickly. He ordered files to be removed from the White House and Oval Office and Cabinet Room tape recordings were taken and squirreled away. The myth could only grow properly if the legacy was carefully sculpted.
The myth grew quickly. Kennedy transcended politics and entered popular culture. A movie based on his Second World War military exploits had already been made. In March 1960, Senator Kennedy had met the former British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond adventure novels. A year later, Life Magazine listed Fleming’s From Russia with Love as among the president’s favourite books. The endorsement led Fleming’s American publisher to push the previously underperforming titles and to Sean Connery taking the British rogue to the big screen. The favour was returned when a character in The Spy Who Loved Me said, “We need some more Jack Kennedy…They ought to hand the world over to young people who haven’t got the idea of war stuck in their subconscious.”
Kennedy had created the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. In the summer of 1963, DC Comics had written a story based on Kennedy asking for Superman’s help to urge Americans to take better care of themselves through diet and exercise. The project was shelved after the assassination but Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, leant his support and so the comic book was published in July 1964. Its cover showed a ghostly JFK towering over the Capitol Building and Superman in mid-flight, glancing sadly back, one mythical hero in awe of another.
The Beatles second album was released on the day Kennedy died. Three months later, they arrived for their first American tour and 50,000 kids screamed their welcome at the newly named JFK airport. While Elvis had offered sex and daring, the Beatles offered love and fun. On a subsequent tour, in September, they toured Dallas. They smiled nervously and waved from an open limousine as they passed through Dealey Plaza, the very spot where Kennedy had been killed. Many of those trying to understand the band’s unprecedented popularity claimed that their songs and wit personified the same youthful enthusiasm as the Kennedy promise. They renewed that promise while providing a welcome tonic to America’s grief. The Beatles, it was argued, allowed the black bunting to be removed and the country to smile again.
John F. Kennedy was an imperfect man and an imperfect president but the perfect stuff of myth. His assassination tore time. For millions of people, the assassination was an irreparable rending that forever split before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. For in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and policies, but himself. His most important contribution was the courageous, audacious determination that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship and challenge is incentive, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, city, or even country. His violent death, like Lincoln’s, challenged those ideas and asked if they were worth preserving, celebrating, and fighting for.
So let’s ask the question. Are those ideas of clear-eyed idealism, unifying confidence, hope, and ambition, and the notion of a broader, deeper community, worth the fight? If so, let us embrace the myths, whether they be people like Kennedy or, in Canada, the myth of the rich, giving, but untameable land, and ask what they say about those ideas and about us. Then, let’s pick our fight. In these foreboding days of Trump, Brexit, and racist, intolerant notions disguised as political programs among leadership aspirants in France and Canada, the fight has never been more urgent. And so, more than 50 years after his death, perhaps we need John F. Kennedy more than ever.
If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. There is more on JFK and his relationship with Canada in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available in bookstores and online through Amazon and Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html