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The Myth of Camelot

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The gods have made their choice. The Olympians have found their anointed one. Bow, bow, before the vessel of the Divine Spark!

So sayeth the priestly class of the mainstream media as they witness the divine laying of hands from the Kennedys upon the New Deliverer, Barack Obama.


He is, quoth ABC's Terry Moran, the "new son of Camelot." Moran continued: "Ted and Caroline Kennedy pass the torch to Barack Obama to carry the legacy of JFK." David Wright, also of ABC, proclaimed, "the audacity of hope had its rendezvous with destiny ... Obama is now an adopted son of Camelot."

MSNBC's Chris Matthews: "Today, for a brief shining hour, the young got to see what we saw, not the gauzy images of Camelot, but the living spirit of the New Frontier."

CBS's Harry Smith proclaimed: "In the civic religion that is Democratic politics, the most treasured covenant was passed to the young senator from Illinois."

One would think that in this age of hysteria about global warming, the press would show some restraint in releasing so much hot air into the atmosphere. Of course, in a gasbaggery race with Ted Kennedy, everyone needs to go into overdrive.

Still, it is a startling thing to behold: Nearly 45 years after the man's tragic death, the liberal establishment remains enthralled to the cargo cult that is the John F. Kennedy myth.

And it is a myth. Start with the "Camelot" label. It's worth remembering that nobody used that word to describe JFK's presidency when he was alive. The media's marketing of the term stems from Jackie Kennedy's recollection that her husband liked the Broadway musical "Camelot," which had opened a month after Kennedy's election. Theodore White, a journalist-admirer of Kennedy's, convinced Life magazine to run with the idea. The musical's tagline "for a brief shining moment" became an overnight cliché to describe the supposedly glorious idealism of Kennedy's "thousand days."


As James Piereson argues in his brilliant book, "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution," the mythmaking industrial complex kicked into overdrive largely to compensate for the fact that Kennedy was killed not by the American right but by a devout Marxist red named Lee Harvey Oswald. The propaganda campaign to blame "forces of hate" - code for the American right - was one of the most fascinating instantaneous "happenings" in U.S. history. For example, a young Texas reporter got hold of a false rumor that a classroom of schoolchildren in Dallas - aka the City of Hate - cheered when they heard Kennedy had been murdered. The local CBS affiliate concluded the story was untrue. But the enterprising reporter did an end-run and filed the story with the network in New York anyway. And with that, a young Dan Rather was off to the races.

But the mythmaking hardly ended there. Suddenly, JFK was hailed not merely as a liberal but as a sort of liberal messiah, martyred for trying to save America. Washington's Methodist bishop, John Wesley Lord, said Americans must "atone" for their role in Kennedy's death. The best way to "thank a martyr for his death and sacrifice" was to embrace liberal politics. Vast conspiracy theories were churned out that Kennedy was murdered because he was going to pull us out of Vietnam. The Oliver Stone crowd has argued ever since that Oswald was the fascist military industrial complex's fall guy. This makes no sense. Kennedy ran to Nixon's right on foreign policy in 1960. Mere hours before he died, Kennedy was boasting to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce that he had increased defense spending on a massive scale, including a 600 percent increase on counterinsurgency special forces in South Vietnam. The previous March, Kennedy had asked Congress to spend fifty cents of every federal dollar on defense. One of JFK's original apostles, former speechwriter Ted Sorensen, is touting Barack Obama as JFK's "heir." But heir to what? Certainly not policies of any kind. Obama is dovish in every way JFK was hawkish. Indeed, Obama is to Hillary Clinton's left. National Journal rated him the most liberal senator of 2007. Sorensen himself admitted in a 1983 Newsweek interview that JFK "never identified himself as a liberal; it was only after his death that they began to claim him as one of theirs." He went on to say that "on fiscal matters (JFK) was more conservative than any president we've had since." But Sorensen has now been overtaken by nostalgia. The legitimacy of Obama's coronation as our new "photogenic redeemer" (a phrase historian Douglas Brinkley used to describe John F. Kennedy Jr.), rests on cloud-castle platitudes about hope and unity, lacking even the slightest ballast of realism. It's political divinization, not policy detail. But what else would you expect from a party that has become a civic religion? (Jonah Goldberg is the author of "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" (Doubleday), now on sale. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.) (C) 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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