The way Americans denigrate, mock, impeach, belittle, loathe and (on occasion) assassinate their Presidents, no wonder John Fitzgerald Kennedy called it ‘the most unpleasant job in existence’.
Clearly they’d be happier with a monarchy, and in retrospect the ousting of George III in 1776 was a big mistake. They long for some shining figure that is above the common herd, whom they can revere and worship as they did Princess Diana and as they already do Baby Cambridge.
And paradoxically JFK was just such a person - King Arthur in Camelot. Americans know this now, of course, which is why he has been mythologised and canonised since that fatal day in Dallas, half a century ago. In commemoration and homage, there are thousands of Kennedy bridges, Kennedy boulevards, Kennedy parks, Kennedy fountains, Kennedy schools, Kennedy civic centres, Kennedy auditoriums, and Kennedy hospitals. There is a Mount Kennedy in the Yukon and a Kennedy Peak in the Dolomites. He is also an international airport and much else besides.
JFK’s Last Hundred Days has the ominousness of a Shakespearean tragedy, as we accompany the President moment by moment to his appointment with doom on November 22, 1963. ‘Crowds don’t threaten me,’ he is heard to say. ‘It’s that fellow standing on the roof with a gun that I worry about.’
At other moments JFK is more stoical and resigned: ‘I will not live in fear. What will be, will be ... The Secret Service couldn’t stop anyone who really wanted to get you ... So why worry about it?’
JFK didn’t like to be hemmed in by bodyguards, and disliked motorcades and police escorts, thinking they ‘widened the distance between himself and the public’. Indeed, despite his wealth and the trappings of power, here was a leader who was concerned not to alienate ordinary voters by flaunting his privileges.
He banned photographs of his cabin on Air Force One, for example, because it looked too much ‘like a rich man’s plane’. (He thought Onassis’s yachts were vulgar - yet look whom his widow married!)
Thurston Clarke has written a superb book, because as the countdown to JFK’s death proceeds remorselessly, we see the President from a number of angles and on many different levels simultaneously - a composite portrait of a ‘casually gracious’ man who, despite his flaws, was principally characterised by ‘nobility and sacrifice’.
Foremost is the private person, with Jackie as his beautiful queen who ‘taught him to appreciate fine clothes and furniture’. We learn that he changed his shirt three times a day and refused to wear a hat ‘to hide his thick chestnut hair’ - a decision that helped kill off the hat-making industry as other American males followed suit.
Despite his apparent robustness, JFK was in fact in perilous health. Clarke has seen the medical records that detail the President’s abdominal cramps, spastic colitis, high cholesterol, urinary tract infections, deafness and malfunctioning adrenal gland.
JFK also had an agonising chronic back condition, necessitating the wearing of a brace or corset. He swallowed ‘a pharmacopoeia of capsules, pills, steroids, antibiotics’. His tan was due to a sun lamp: ‘It gives me confidence, it makes me feel healthy.’
Sickness didn’t prevent his rampant womanising. ‘Jack was not very conscious about how much he hurt his wife,’ Clarke was told. Call girls, strippers, interns and secretaries queued up obligingly, as did Ellen Rometsch, an East German double-agent, and various broads he shared with Frank Sinatra and with the Mafia boss Sam Giancana.
One wonders when JFK found the time to meet ambassadors or attend the state reception for King Zaher of Afghanistan. He also received visiting celebrities in the Oval Office, such as Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby and Greta Garbo, who ‘became inebriated’.
He oversaw new colour schemes for the country’s mailboxes and approved the design for new uniforms for American postmen. He studied reports and polls, went sailing and played golf - the latter recorded on 8mm film, which was sent to Arnold Palmer ‘to have him critique his swing’. How regal - always to seek the opinion of the top expert in any field.
Kennedy had arrived at the White House in January 1961 by the narrowest of margins - 113,000 votes out of the 69 million cast. He was never to be certain of the support he’d receive to get his policies enacted - yet with the benefit of hindsight we can see that he was enlightened and he was right, almost more twenty-first century than mid-20th century in sensibility.
He was horrified, for instance, by the prospect of a global nuclear war, which his military advisors wanted him to start on a pre-emptive basis. On the President’s orders they could ‘kill three hundred million people in one hour’.
Having listened to the predictions and statistics of the Net Evaluation Sub-Committee, which estimated how many Americans would perish, he said with weary disgust: ‘And we call ourselves the human race.’
JFK initiated delicate diplomatic approaches with the Soviets, with a view to signing a treaty ban on atmospheric nuclear tests - a first step towards ending the Cold War. But though no hawk, when the Berlin Wall went up he increased spending on conventional weapons, doubled draft calls, and put the army on alert.
Having fought in the Pacific in World War II with distinction, Kennedy knew that it would be calamitous for America to get bogged down in Far Eastern conflicts. So when Vietnam became unstable, and the Pentagon was itching for a fight, he didn’t want to get involved with the various local coups.
‘I don’t want the United States to have to put troops there,’ he said. His generals, however, claimed that ‘American prestige is already publicly committed’ - and after JFK’s assassination, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, ‘a miserable and impulsive man’, notably ignored the wisdom of restraint and sent countless young Americans to the slaughter, forging ahead against the chimera of ‘the Communist conspiracy’.
In the game of prestige, JFK preferred the space race, which he could see was ‘really a stunt and isn’t worth that many billions’, but which nevertheless was ‘a thrilling incarnation of American power’ - and he was keen to get to the moon and plant a flag before the Russians.
Perhaps Kennedy’s major legacy was his support for the Congress of Racial Equality and his identifying of civil rights as a moral issue. He wanted sweeping anti-discrimination statutes passed by Congress (which eventually they were) - yet in America in 1963, 44 per cent of the non-black population wanted their children to attend all-white schools, and 77 per cent said they’d never sell their house to a black person because then the neighbourhood would be ruined.
For his liberal and civilised philosophies, Kennedy was shot. His back brace, which kept him bolt upright in the back of the limo, made him an easy target. ‘They’ve killed my husband,’ wailed Jackie, with horrifying veracity. ‘His brains are in my hand!’
Right-wing white southerners hated him with a passion. Yet JFK had insisted on going to Dallas to face them, as ‘if I don’t mingle with people, I couldn’t get elected dog catcher’.
His bigoted opponents thought the rapprochement with Russia and his disinclination to nuke them was appeasement. His racial views and respect for black citizens were deemed ‘socialist tendencies that were more or less Communist’.
It is repulsive to realise that Nixon - a shadowy Richard III to Kennedy’s refulgent Richard II - won the Presidency in 1968 by appealing precisely to anti-civil rights sentiments in southern states. Vietnam escalated also - we’ve all seen Apocalypse Now.
JFK FACT FILE
- In 1960 Kennedy was just 43, the youngest President ever to be elected and the first to be born in the 20th century.
- Before becoming President, Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1957 book Profiles in Courage.
- Though extremely wealthy Kennedy never carried cash, borrowing from friends and often failing to pay them back.
- Kennedy’s left leg was considerably shorter than his right, obliging him to wear corrective shoes.
- JFK loved animals and variously owned cats, dogs, horses, canaries, parakeets and hamsters.
- Kennedy usually swam twice a day in the White House pool heated to 90 degrees and with a specially commissioned mural of the Massachusetts waterfront to remind him of home.
- One of Kennedy’s first Presidential acts was the formation of the Peace Corps. Since 1961 over 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps in 139 countries.
JFK's Last hundred days by Thurston Clarke (Penguin Press £20)