Last month, President John F. Kennedy would have turned 90 years old, had he lived. Even so, JFK is enjoying a banner year of publicity, especially for a dead man.
This week, it's Time magazine joining the fray, giving Kennedy the cover ("What We Can Learn from JFK") and a whopping 18 full pages of print and photo space. He gets a mostly adoring view from the writers who call him "A Warrior for Peace" and an "Icon of American Elegance."
Time joins a veritable publishing bonanza trading on the fascination with JFK-ness. There's Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History which argues the most sensational assassination story you can imagine: namely that Oswald, in fact, acted alone. This book is being made into an HBO mini-series by Tom Hanks & Co. Before Bugliosi, it was Salon's editor David Talbot's Brothers which argued that Bobby Kennedy intended to win the presidency first and then investigate for a conspiracy which he believed in. And, before that, it was E. Howard Hunt who, basically on his death-bed, claimed in American Spy that it was Lyndon Johnson who conspired to see Kennedy shot.
Maybe that's what makes Time so unique with its latest issue. The assassination only gets two pages. One is devoted to Bugliosi's Oswald-acted-alone case and the other to Talbot's Bobby-suspected-conspiracy case. Everything else dissects what made JFK such a great president.
In fact, he was. His speeches were perfect pitch in confronting the Soviet menace and the Cold War, telling the enemy that we would "bear any burden" to oppose tyranny but also extending the olive branch of peace if they wished to be our partners. He was inspirational in other areas from race relations to volunteerism. He literally was of the new generation. He gave Americans hope and he gave people from around the world reason to like Americans.
Amazingly, one of the associated Time articles called "The Swingingest President Ever" is not about the hundreds, if not thousands, of women besides Jackie Kennedy that JFK bedded. It is about his golf game. The closest the writers come to analyzing his personal fall from grace is this single passage from the cover story's introduction:
"In more recent years, he has suffered from a revisionist backlash, portrayed in books and the media as a decadent prince who put the nation at risk with is reckless personal behavior. Journalist Christopher Hitchens has gone so far as to dismiss him as a "vulgar hoodlum." While Kennedy's private life would certainly not pass today's public scrutiny, this pathological interpretation misses the essential story of his presidency."
At the risk of sounding like I'm full of "revisionist backlash," I'm not certain I fully agree.
First, however, as I've said many, many times, I loved JFK and his death made a mark on me like everyone else of my generation. Second, I'm a life-long Democrat.
Still, I'm not inclined to accept Time's analysis that all would have been wonderful if only he'd lived. He lived a life of lies from his medical condition to his now-legendary affairs. He tried to kill foreign leaders. He had friends in the mob who did him favors. And, at the time of his assassination, he was not as universally liked as he was when he became a martyr.
Co-author Harry Turtledove and I have worked through the "if Kennedy lived" scenario and come up with a fairly controversial new conclusion. If JFK survived Dallas, we believe the resulting investigation would have exposed in a very short period of time all the unsavory things that have instead taken over four decades to come out. The backwash would have crippled his presidency and his reputation would be quite different today. It's an alt-history book which we invite you to check out by clicking on the image below.