JFK: Of Camelot and conspiracy

By William Prochnau
November 20, 2013

Within an hour after President John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, Washington became a ghost town.

It was still early on a Friday afternoon but, except in hidden security centers, no one in this power-centric, workaholic town had any idea what to do. The phones overloaded and stopped working periodically. Almost all government stopped working, too.

I was a 26-year-old rookie reporter from Seattle. Two of the country’s most powerful senators came from my state, including Senator Henry M. Jackson, who had been Robert F. Kennedy’s choice over Lyndon B. Johnson to be his brother’s running mate in 1960.

So it was natural that I would be drawn to the Old Senate Office Building — the Old S.O.B, we called it, for the acronym and the pun but mainly because it housed the expansive empires of the senior senators of the day. Usually bustling with power-brokers, lobbyists and favor-seekers, the hallways were empty except for a cluster of staffers in front of Jackson’s office.

By the time I got to the Capitol, the Senate and House of Representatives had adjourned and most senators and congressmen had closed their offices and gone home. Jackson, however, remained. His wife, Helen, was out of town, and he dreaded going alone to their Washington apartment. So his staff stayed with him in the Old S.O.B., talking in clutches outside in the marble hallway. For me, two moments resonate as clearly today as they did in 1963.

After a few minutes Jackson emerged from his office and asked me, “Do you want to take a walk?” Of course I wanted to walk with Jackson. A Cold Warrior like Kennedy, a good friend if not a Hyannisport buddy, who had joined in his roughhouse Georgetown softball games when both were still among Washington’s most eligible bachelors, Jackson was as close to Kennedy as anyone I would find that day in the psychologically blitzed capital.

It turned out to be a peculiar walk — one that showed he was as discombobulated as the rest of us. We went to the Senate payroll office, where Jackson corrected a $6 error in his paycheck. Despite my efforts, he didn’t want to talk about the assassination or what might have been. Jackson was as spun out of his orbit as the rest of us and I was simply his foil to level life out for a few minutes.

The second moment occurred back at his office where, like everyone, Brian Corcoran, Jackson’s press secretary, tried to assess the day’s impact. “The real tragedy is that Kennedy will barely be remembered 50 years from now,” Corcoran said. “His presidency was cut too short and he didn’t have time to accomplish anything.”

To be sure, at the time of Kennedy’s death, most of his landmark New Frontier legislation, including the Civil Rights Act, was bogged down in a Congress dominated by Southerners — who did not look kindly on Kennedy or his program. He will never go down as one of America’s great presidents.

Yet his hold on America’s imagination remains as durable as it was the day he died. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination, publishing houses have flooded us with another deluge of books, with titles ranging from The Kennedy Half Century to Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House to Who Really Killed Kennedy? The New York Times, in a recent article ironically headlined: “Kennedy, the Elusive President,” put the tally of Kennedy books since his death at 40,000. Television, bolstered by 24/7 cable channels that didn’t exist during his life, is adding to the torrent with a slew of retrospectives in the run-up to Friday’s anniversary.

What made the Kennedy legacy such a powerful and lasting American obsession? Theodore H. White, who wrote the classic Making of the President 1960, argued that Kennedy believed that heroes made history — and cast himself in that role.

To my generation, he was undeniably a hero, albeit a flawed one. The youngest man ever elected president (at 43), he was a phenom — modern, handsome and princely, given to heroic words and gestures. Glamorous, he was doubly so alongside his wife, Jacqueline, who turned the White House into an American version of the court at Versailles for parties honoring the literati. He was a celebrity president made for television before television itself quite knew what it was made for.

The twin pillars that keep the Kennedy saga alive — Camelot and conspiracy — were embedded in Washington’s marble within days after JFK’s death. Together, they transformed the story into a Shakespearian tragedy: a young nobleman cut down at the apex of his and his empire’s power, with his slaying forever muddled by a cast of powerful and shady characters that prevents the facts of the crime from ever truly being resolved.

Almost immediately after his death, in a remarkable and manipulative effort, Jackie Kennedy planted the-young-prince-in-Camelot imagery so deep that it has held up for a half-century, despite the onslaught of contradictions about JFK, the flawed man, that emerged in later years.

Camelot, a hit Broadway musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, played through most of his presidency. But it never was attached to Kennedy’s name before he died — a lesson in how legends are made.

Jackie, trying to head off assessments of her man by what she called “bitter people,” made certain it became the romantic theme of their time in the White House. Seven days after her husband was shot, she called Theodore White, journalist, historian and — most important — a friend, to Hyannisport for an exclusive four-hour interview. There she wove the myth of Camelot into the “reality” of the Kennedy years, even hovering over White to edit his story back on to the Camelot track, as he phoned it to his editors at Life magazine.

On December 6, 1963, Life published the essay with its emphasis on the Camelot years and the lyrics that Jackie said her husband played on his old Victrola almost every night before going to sleep:

“Don’t let it be forgot,

That once there was a spot

For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

It was a heroic, if somewhat childlike, view of a president who inspired a nation with his youth and vigor. (That too was a myth because he and his troupe hid his debilitating Addison’s disease and assorted other ailments.) At the time of the assassination, Kennedy’s approval rating was 70 percent, and it remains the highest in the history of presidential polling.

He was the first and still is the most compelling of the media presidents. He simply romanced the little black-and-white tube, arguably winning office by beating Richard M. Nixon in the first televised presidential debate and keeping his critics at bay with wit and charm in regular televised press conferences. Politicians, Democrat and Republican, have learned to use the medium since, but none more effectively. Americans took Kennedy into their homes — and liked him.

The Camelot image has suffered over the years since, as serious historians examined the downsides to his presidency — he essentially began our long Vietnam nightmare. Others looked at the anti-heroism of his compulsive, almost serial womanizing. Even White corrected the story he and Jackie had created in Hyannisport. By 1978, White said he had misread history somewhat.

“The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed,” White wrote in his book, In Search of History.

Yet there was something to the concoction — because “one brief shining moment” still stands as the metaphor for Kennedy’s brief presidency. Camelot represented optimism and possibility. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, he aspired to send a man to the moon. Government was not the enemy. Forever frozen in his prime, he harkens to a simpler time, before the events that complicated America’s place in the world after his death: the tumultuous ‘60s, the quagmire that Vietnam became, Watergate, terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the endless, deadlocked power struggle and destructiveness that has become de rigueur in Washington political life.

Kennedy gave Americans the idea that we could do better. That we could believe in something. Robert Dallek, the presidential historian and author of the new Kennedy biography, Camelot’s Court, summed it up succinctly in the New York Times: Americans admire presidents who give them hope.

The other timeless pillar of the legend — the conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s killing — may keep his presidency alive even longer than Camelot. Future generations are not more likely to find a satisfying answer, if one exists, than we have in these 50 years.

But that won’t stop them from trying. Americans are not good at handling randomness. They want answers that add up.

The conspiracy theories really took flight the moment Jack Ruby, a seedy, two-bit nightclub owner, killed the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, two days after Kennedy died. A lone shooter with a $12.78 mail-order rifle taking down the leader of the free world didn’t add up. But two random events, the second one closing off the most logical line of inquiry, were just too much for the public.

After Oswald’s death, there was no shutting the conspiracists down — no matter how far out they wandered. Mark Lane, a left-wing lawyer, began criticizing the work of the official assassination investigation, the Warren Commission, as soon as it was formed. He broadly attacked the commission’s final report in a best-selling 1966 book, Rush to Judgment. The theories cascaded downward from there, to the wild warps of Oliver Stone’s 1991 Hollywood blockbuster, JFK.

Today, two-thirds of Americans — most of them either too young to remember or born since the dire doings of November 22, 1963 — continue to believe the killing was a multi-person plot. Some of the most powerful leaders of that time were conspiracy believers. RFK believed. So did Johnson. Many actually thought Johnson was part of the plot. It was all wild speculation, born out of the multiple passions of the day.

It is impossible to disprove most conspiracy theories. Events have provided the Kennedy conspiracist with an especially compelling playbill of characters that makes the story epic when laid against the background of a fallen idol. Could the bard himself conjure up historical suspects as compelling as Fidel Castro, whom Kennedy tried to have poisoned; the mafia, with whom he shared a boss’s girlfriend; the Russians, with whom he was beginning the arms race that would spend them into bankruptcy; Lyndon Johnson, who had everything to gain and gained it; Cuban exiles, who felt betrayed by the Bay of Pigs; J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA?

Two months before Dallas, I made an 11-state cross-country trip with Kennedy. On September 24, 1963, we traveled by helicopter from Duluth, Minnesota, to Ashland, Wisconsin, crossing Lake Superior in a violent late-summer thunderstorm. It was a frightening trip. One of the convoy’s eight choppers was forced down onto an island in the lake. Tom Wicker, a seasoned New York Times reporter, sat across from me. He turned as ashen-faced as I was in the bucking press helicopter. “He’s a terrible risk-taker,” Wicker muttered unhappily.

Kennedy’s speaking platform in little Ashland was an outdoor stand surrounded by the crowd. As he prepared to speak, a young woman, maybe 22 or 23, rushed up the stairs and grabbed the president in an adulating bear hug. Kennedy grinned but flinched and the Secret Service quickly pulled the woman away.

Wicker and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Later, we thought it was like looking into the future. It was so easy to kill this first of our rock star presidents.

Perhaps that incident in Ashland is the reason I have less trouble than most in accepting the Oswald, single-shooter theory. He was no more random than the young woman in Ashland.

We live our own common lives touched at pivotal times by far more random events than conspiratorial ones.

 

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President John F. Kennedy points to a reporter at a news conference, November 20, 1962. REUTERS/Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy attend a dinner in honor of Andre Malraux, cultural affairs minister France, in Washington, on May 11, 1962. REUTERS/Robert Knudsen/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy confer at the White House, West Wing Colonnade, October 3, 1962. Cecil Stoughton/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

8 comments

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No ens mereixem després de tants i tants escrits d´opinió ,després de tantes súpliques per alliberar documentació,
després de tants anys encara no sabem que va passar un dia de la Nostra història.
No ens mereixem aquest silenci en l´assassinat de JFK

Posted by indignatignasi | Report as abusive

@indignatignasi –

How many people on this planet do you really think speak Catalan?!? Get with the program comment in English or be ignored by the rest of the world.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

A woman in a crowd rushing at the President to hug him is comparable to a crack marksman shooting the President in a moving car from five stories up?! And a bum dying of cancer being permitted to shoot the assassin point blank in the stomach in front of the whole world, in the only way that he could not possibly live another minute? If that sounds like random to you, dear writer-commentator, we live on different planets.

Just how do you explain the decision by the Warren Commission to refuse to release the full story for literally generations? What must be in there to justify such extraordinary secrecy? Now that we know so much about Kennedy that is negative — about his sex life and his connections with the mafia for example (and about Hoover’s passion to find dirt on him) you’d think we could demand the release of the report. But I suppose in a world in which the Snowden revelations are possible today, the Cold-War world of Kennedy was even more hush-hush.

My guess is either the Mafia or Hoover. The Mafia because Kennedy crossed someone after using them to gain power. Or Hoover because he knew of the Mafia connections and could not believe that the mob had actually gained influence or leverage or the President of the United States. Who other than the Mafia or Hoover could have pulled Jack Ruby out of the hat so suddenly when he was so unexpectedly required to silence Oswald. But I suppose you think that Ruby was just an outraged American who lost control of his patriotic fervor when his beloved President was killed.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

The Catalan seems to mean:
Even though so many theories have been propounded, so many requests for documentation have been made, and so many years have passed, we still don’t know what happened on one single day in our history. It is wrong for silence to continue.about the assassination.

Posted by jsmason | Report as abusive

Secret factions within the CIA, the Military Industrial Complex, killed President Kennedy, so they could have their Viet Nam war, 1955 to 1975, 20 years of cost plus!! The Christians-In-Action could run opium and heroin out of the “Golden Triangle”, to generate billions of dollars for their nefarious black projects, that have no oversight and no budgets, again for 20 years; and the military industrial complex could use up all their old war material left over from WWII and Korea, then get all new stuff, making all the defense contractors very happy. Yes, I believe this was why President Kennedy was killed!! Like Bob Dylan sang, “money doesn’t talk, in swears”!!
The military-industrial-complex cannot afford to let any president live that it cannot control!! We haven’t had a government, “of the people, by the people, for the people”, since President Eisenhower!!

Posted by Jack_Barlow | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Prochnau – You will soon have answers. New facts that have been right under our noses for 50 years have been disclosed to a small number of academics and researchers over the past few years. Those facts provide the answer as to specifically who was involved in hiring the gunman/men…this is what really matters. It is explosive indeed. American history will be changed. Barr McClellan’s new book, to be released on Amazon mid-Dec, will disclose that information. Today’s news statement from a CIA employee that the CIA, in anticipation of having to disclose all records related to the assassination in 2017, has admitted that some of those documents will show that they knew Oswald / had a relationship with him. That is the tip of the iceberg so to speak. Roger Stone’s recent book scratches the surface, but is directionally correct. They fit together into a very simple LBJ/CIA/mafia explanation. The missing piece of the puzzle was right under our couch. If you want a head start, call Mr. McClellan.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Suggested reading as good prep for the upcoming disclosures mentioned above: 1) Recent blog by Peggy Noonan (WSJ), “The Deep State”, with input from Bob Woodward and Bob Schiefer, 2) Google “Operation Mockingbird”, the CIA’s domestic propaganda machine uncovered in the Church Committee investigations, 3) read transcript from G Robert Blakey’s 2003 PBS interview(Chief Counsel to the House Select Committee on Assassinations…the follow up investigation to the Warren Commission…obstructed by the CIA). Every single American should be aware of this, especially in light of the recent NSA disclosures.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

It is more comfortable to believe in the lone gunman theory not only for JFK but for MLK, RFK, Medgar Evars and those Civil Rights people murdered who could not be convicted in the south for 40 years. Ideology matters. So do facts. There is an odor hanging over the murder of JFK that will not go away. Too many called for the murder and some obviously made money from it. Sadly the same factions are working today in a political divide that is perhaps more serious.

Posted by LillithMc | Report as abusive