Television bombarded America with John
Kennedy specials last week. Most of them focused on the conspiracy
theories surrounding his death. The mob did it, Castro did it, the
communists, the FBI, even his own vice president, Lyndon Johnson
“did it.” I can’t confirm or deny any of these
rumors or theories, but the way in which these television specials
portrayed them says something about the sensationalism that feeds
much of what appears on TV.

Kate Green

The most intelligent thing that anyone said about the
assassination had very little to do with Kennedy’s tragic
death. On the CNBC show that bears his name, Chris Matthews made a
very insightful comment on the Kennedy phenomenon. After describing
the Kennedy appeal, Matthews said, “The hero who lived and
died on TV is now the proud child of the TV tube. But the story
caught, stored and rerun on television is deeper, stronger, greater
… In Hollywood they call this the back story, what
doesn’t show on the screen. The strength of the Jack Kennedy
back story should be a warning to those too ready to mime his look
and manner. So be warned, those looking for leaders, those looking
to be one, this medium you ware watching is not, cannot be a window
to the soul, an X-ray to seek out vision, a searchlight to find
greatness.”

Just as every Republican presidential candidate is measured
against Ronald Reagan, every Democratic candidate vying to be the
head of state cannot avoid the comparisons to John Kennedy.
“Saturday Night Live” cast member Darrell Hammond has
said that in order to impersonate Bill Clinton, he had to practice
giving Kennedy’s speeches in a Southern accent. Democratic
presidential candidate John Kerry has the great hair, the clothes,
the money and Massachusetts in common with Kennedy. Sen. John
Edwards of North Carolina has the good looks and the charisma.

But as Matthews points out, these superficial similarities do
not make a Democrat Jack Kennedy. Kennedy was not just a playboy
from a wealthy family. The historian Robert Dallek has in the last
few years uncovered documents that reveal that Kennedy was sick
from the age of 13. Jeffrey Kelman, who examined the records, said
on PBS, “He was never healthy. I mean, the image you get of
vigor and progressive health wasn’t true … By the time
he was president, he was on 10, 12 medications a day. He was on
antispasmodics for his bowel, paregoric, lamodal transatine [ph] he
was on muscle relaxants, Phenobarbital, Librium, Meprobomate, he
was on pain medications, Codeine, Demerol, Methadone, he was on
oral cortisone; he was on injected cortisone, he was on
testosterone, he was on Nembutal for sleep. And on top of that, he
was getting injected sometimes six times a day, six places on his
back, by the White House physician, with Novocain, Procaine, just
to enable him to face the day.”

In World War II, the Japanese cut in two the boat that Kennedy
commanded. The future president led his crew on a three-mile swim
to a nearby island, while he towed a seriously injured man by his
lifejacket. The men then swam from island to island, looking for
one with food. This is how Kennedy found greatness.

To find greatness, Matthews continues, “… you need
some reading, some thinking, some soul searching, some
instinct.”

Kennedy did well in a superficial medium, but there was
substance to back up his style. Too many politicians are eager to
replicate his television prowess without taking into consideration
how events in Kennedy’s formative years forged his character
and identity.

If you compare John Edwards and John Kerry to Richard Nixon,
Kennedy’s opponent in 1960, they would probably come off
better than Nixon on TV as well. But do they have what it takes to
take on the military establishment and not attack Cuba even if that
means jeopardizing the White House’s hold on the
government?

Television simplifies American politics and has a tendency to
highlight what the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have wanted
highlighted. We should keep that in mind every four years, as the
perennial parade of self-described Kennedy-lites marches onto the
political stage. And we should all heed vice-presidential candidate
Lloyd Bentsen’s famous advice to his counterpart, Sen. Dan
Quayle, in the 1988 presidential campaign: Because not everyone
trying to capitalize off of America’s deep adoration for
Camelot is John Kennedy — most aren’t even close.

Pesick can be reached at
“mailto:jzpesick@umich.edu”>jzpesick@umich.edu.

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