Exploring the Kennedy-Camelot connection

Each evening, from December to December, Before you drift to sleep upon your cot, Think back on all the tales that you remember Of Camelot.

Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story, And tell it strong and clear if he has not, That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory Called Camelot.

Where once it never rained till after sundown, By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown… Don’t let it be forgot That once there was a spot For one brief shining moment that was known As Camelot.

Word association: King Arthur. Knights. Camelot. John F. Kennedy. It seems like a natural string of words and phrases now, half a century after JFK was killed in Dallas. Is there anyone who hasn’t made, or at least heard about, the Kennedy-Camelot connection? For one brief shining moment, our memories tell us, it was real: the charismatic young president with his White House full of brilliant, idealistic associates, spreading hope and enlightenment across the political landscape, making the world a better, safer place. But it wasn’t real. Like the musical Camelot; like The Once and Future King, the novel that inspired the Broadway show; like the myriad tales and legends that chronicled the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table – like all the Arthurian fiction, folklore and fable before it, Kennedy’s Camelot was a myth. And it was a myth, oddly enough, that was concocted after Kennedy’s death, after the imagined wisp of glory had been shattered by the horrible sound of gunfire on Nov. 22, 1963. We’ve heard and read the reference so often that it seems as if the Kennedy presidency was always equated with Camelot, the mythical home of Arthur and his court. The connection was easy to accept, after all: From the stories about his heroism in World War II to his unforgettable inaugural address in January 1961 – “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he urged us, “ask what you can do your country” – to his final public appearances in Fort Worth before the fatal motorcade in Dallas, Kennedy projected the aura of a mythical figure. His coterie of Harvard-wisened advisers and his star-studded White House gatherings of artists, scholars and opinion-makers conjured visions of a Camelotian court of honor. But no one suggested such a thing until a week after the assassination when Jacqueline Kennedy asked journalist-historian Theodore H. White to interview her and write an article for Life magazine – an article that was published in December 1963 and forever linked the Kennedy presidency with Camelot. Mrs. Kennedy told White, whose book The Making of the President 1960 had examined JFK’s presidential campaign, that her husband loved to listen to the Camelot cast album and was especially fond of the lyrics sung by King Arthur in the final reprise of the show’s title song: Don’t let it be forgot That once there was a spot For one brief shining moment that was known As Camelot. Jackie insisted that White make the Camelot reference the focal point of his article, hoping that associating Kennedy with the mythical monarch who brought peace, chivalry and nobility to his kingdom would persuade the public to remember the slain president as a rare and heroic leader whose contributions to history would never be duplicated. In truth, as columnist Robert Samuelson points out elsewhere in this week’s Business Press, Kennedy’s contributions to history were minimal. “It’s not about him. It’s about us,” Samuelson writes, suggesting that our perception of Kennedy and his presidency are projections of our own aspirations for ourselves, our country and our world. More than a leader, Kennedy was a symbol. He embodied not what was but what could be. For that, we can be both grateful and resentful. Kennedy showed us, as individuals and as a country, that it’s possible to be inspired by a leader and that it’s possible to act on that inspiration, to reach beyond ourselves in quest of a greater good. He spoke of a New Frontier, never defining what it was but making us believe it was a worthy destination. But the uplifting rhetoric and mythical imagery, with little substantive achievement to support them, had a downside. The mythology made us susceptible to the lure of a false prophet, a would-be savior who might promise deliverance but deliver only words. JFK primed us to judge our leaders not by how they make us think but how they make us feel. That can be a dangerous standard; it can make us prey for charlatans and demagogues. JFK excited and inspired us, and we’ve been chasing the dream ever since, yearning for a leader who can give us one fleeting wisp of glory, one brief shining moment of hope for the future. Maybe it’s time, as we honor John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his too-soon and too-tragic death, to let go of the dream. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to Camelot and to the search for unattainable myths that supplant our understanding of reality and erode our willingness to deal with it. Perhaps the time has come to give JFK his due and relinquish him to history.