Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Vapors of Camelot


Today's subject is delicate.  We will be dealing here with friends, intimate history, how reality is lighted, or obscured.  You'll get the picture.

Last week excerpts from the tapes of a fairly extended interview Jacqueline Onassis gave Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1964 made it onto network television.  The drumbeat of publicity leading up to this feature on ABC indicated that this premature release of many of the tapes was the price Caroline Kennedy was willing to pay if the network would refrain from airing the miniseries on the Kennedys it had already scheduled.  The miniseries ultimately made it onto a secondary cable channel.  While tiptoeing around most of the more contested issues -- Vietnam, Cuba, the unconstitutional tactics of Bob Kennedy's Get-Hoffa Squad -- the miniseries did touch on a surprising amount of heretofore protected information -- how sick Jack Kennedy really was, his tendency to clutch in a crisis, his heedless and politically suicidal womanizing.  Like Joe Kennedy and Jackie Onassis before her, Caroline Kennedy seems to understand instinctively how important it remains to calcify the abiding mythology, to blow the right publicity trumpets.

Well before the Schlesinger/Onassis interview aired there were leaks in the media suggesting potential bombshells.  The Texas oil wildcatters were behind the assassination of JFK.  Lyndon Johnson had a hand.  Having investigated and projected in my controversial book Bobby and J. Edgar my own very detailed treatment of who actually gunned down President Kennedy, and why, I hoped for something new.  But when the hour came these rumors appeared to be unfounded.  Such potentially loaded observations by Mrs. Onassis had obviously been censored out.

I felt for Arthur Schlesinger.  I knew Arthur well; he had been a teacher of mine while I was an undergraduate at Harvard.  For perhaps thirty years, once I began to research the CIA for The Old Boys, I never visited Manhattan -- and I was there often -- without having lunch with Schlesinger, who had served in the OSS and knew the intelligence pioneers well.  Arthur had been recruited as an adviser in the Kennedy White House-- his advice was almost always good but very rarely listened to -- and afterwards he became an important source and a close friend of Robert Kennedy, whose biography he wrote.  Robert Kennedy and His Times was an inspired performance.  But in it Good Bobby was everywhere, and Bad Bobby -- on whom I later lavished a lot of attention -- was nowhere in sight.  Arthur's devotion to the Kennedy crowd ultimately cost him a lot of reputation among historians. At our last lunch he asked me, rather timorously, what I thought of Evan Thomas' biography of Bob.  Thomas' book was capable if quite restrained in its attention to Robert Kennedy's faults -- certainly compared with Bobby and J. Edgar later on.  From what he had heard, Arthur said, he could not bring himself to read the Thomas biography.

For all his legendary prickliness, Arthur Schlesinger had fallen in love with a myth. His passion cost him.  As long as we continue to evade and classify the elements of our own unfolding history, it will cost us.

Burton Hersh


  1. I was unaware of the Johnson/oil barons theory until your post, Burton. It strikes me that considering that Johnson pursued JFK's policies in Vietnam and worsened them over his presidency, and that Johnson took up the mantle of the Civil Rights movement for African Americans (which Kennedy, much like Lincoln, came reluctantly to support after much realpolitik), in the end Johnson had few basic policy differences with JFK, at least in these two instances, which were the major actions, one for ill and one for good, of Johnson's presidency.

    It stretches credulity, I think, to therefore assign to Johnson's memory a venal, power-hungry-no-matter-what murderousness, which is what the man would have to have been consumed by in order to be part of JFK's assassination in any way. The only hanging chad is that the event took place in Dallas, Texas. If Johnson had taken the nation in a radically different direction from that which JFK had set forth, perhaps this conspiracy theory would make more sense historically.

    However, he didn't. Therefore, if this alternative theory carried weight, Johnson would have had to have carried a mortal, personal hatred for JFK. In light of Johnson's advocacy for the disenfranchised in America (which indicates a certain high-mindedness in the man), both in his Great Society initiative and in his support for Civil Rights, it seems implausible that two such utterly opposed urges, and the cognitive dissonance they would have caused, would have produced what appeared to be so sane a man as Lyndon Johnson.

    J.M. Bodkin

  2. Hi Burt:

    Thanks for your “Camelot” piece. It triggered several synaptic tingles for me.

    1. Ss homo sapiens we tend to remember what we now call “historic events and periods” through narratives,. Our wiring reflects that for a very long time before the written word we were wired to oral narratives to tell the stories (important for our survival) of our family and tribal groups. What we call “historical accuracy” was less important than emotional impact. The myth could be remembered much easier than the detailed events. We still carry that cognitive process in our DNA.

    2. Just within our recent period the technology of how we record events has developed to the point that the efficacy of myth can be challenged. But what difference will that really make? In the case of the “Camelot” myth, how would history have been different if the actual events had not been mythologized? Societies tend to be empowered by the myth. For example, the Obama myth inspired his election in 2008. Communication technology has made it possible for that myth to be demythologized, and now it will be interesting to see if there is any effort to re-mythologize Obama for the 2012 election.

    3. Is it possible to maintain any mythology in a fully technological secular society? We now have developed an interesting set of mythologies about “the founding fathers” and “the Constitution” and “Democracy”. Each of these seem to be driven by a-historical passions and emotional needs. Are they really different from the Camelot mythological process?
    Can a society really operate as a political system without underlying mythologies?

    4. If you demythologized Camelot what would really be learned from which we could make our society different today? For some, knowing “what actually is the case” provides a sense of comfort and confidence. For others it shatters all sense of meaning and creates great anxiety and cynicism.



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