Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Birth of Camelot

You can make the argument that it was 50 years ago today that the concept of the Kennedy presidency as a modern–day Camelot was born — although the truth, as it so often is, was quite different.

Kennedy's presidency was never regarded as Camelot during his lifetime. That label was given to his administration in hindsight — by his widow when she was interviewed by historian Theodore H. White a week after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

In some ways, the presidency and the world have changed a lot in half a century. Fifty years ago, it was possible for a presidential candidate to wait until the actual election year to launch his campaign. Far fewer states (only 16 in 1960) held primaries, and, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book "The Making of the President 1960," White implies the announcement itself was a foregone conclusion.

I don't know how the people of Massachusetts reacted when Kennedy announced his candidacy, coming little more than a year after they had returned him to the Senate. I don't know if it caught any of them by surprise. But it doesn't seem to have caught his staff by surprise. White did not write about a heated debate over the pros and cons of Kennedy's candidacy. He wrote about discussions of strategy.

"Some [primaries] should not be entered for fear of offending favorite sons; some should not be entered because they were unimportant," White wrote of the prevailing opinions at the late 1959 strategy sessions. "But ... a broad enough number had to be chosen to give a national cast to the campaign, and those chosen had to be of value for their impact on neighboring states and on the big bosses who would be watching. And every primary had to be won — there could be no stumbling."

Most delegations were chosen by state conventions and state party leaders in 1960. Forty–eight years later, most were chosen by voters in primaries or caucuses. It was a different time, but the American people weren't so different. In John Kennedy's day, the presidency was believed to be the exclusive domain of Protestants. In Barack Obama's day, it was thought to belong to whites.

But that was because only Protestants had been elected president prior to 1960, and only whites had been elected prior to 2008. In 1960, there were many who were skeptical that a Catholic could be elected president, just as there were many who were skeptical in 2008 that a black man could be elected president — mostly because neither had ever happened before.

Kennedy proved that a Catholic could be elected president, although no Catholics have been elected since and only one (John Kerry) has been nominated by a major party.

But in the early days of his candidacy, Kennedy's critics did not take him seriously, suggesting that, because of his youth and inexperience, he should focus on being the running mate for a more seasoned Democrat. His response? "I'm not running for vice president, I'm running for president."

(Thus, it was ironic when, in March 2008, it was suggested by Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as others, that Obama would be a good running mate. Obama tried, in his own way, to deflect such talk: "I don't know how somebody who's in second place can offer the vice presidency to someone who's in first place," he said.)

Today, I have found no observances at the websites for the Boston newspapers that reflect on the 50th anniversary of Jack Kennedy's announcement. Instead, the spotlight is on the race to select the person who will complete the unexpired term of his youngest brother, Teddy, who died last August. Whoever wins, it will be the first time in nearly 60 years (with the exception of a brief period when a temporary appointee represented Massachusetts) that a Kennedy hasn't been in the Senate.

Time marches on. And perhaps it is long past time to retire Camelot as a synonym for the Kennedy presidency.

But it is worth mentioning today, if only to remind us how far we have come — and how far we still have to go.

No comments: