By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Senior Culture Editor
12:00 PM CDT, October 25, 2013
When I was 13, my seventh-grade history teacher upbraided me in front of the entire class for being rude and disrespectful to our Founding Fathers. My crime? I had asked how she squared her (rather alarming) passion for Thomas Jefferson with the fact that he was a slave owner and that many historians believe he fathered several children, illegitimately, with a woman he owned.
My tone might not have been quite as innocent as I remember it, but I honestly just wanted to know. I too admired Jefferson and had been shocked to learn, through an article in American Heritage, of his relationship with Sally Hemings. My teacher, however, was not interested in exploring the tension between uncomfortable fact and glorious mythology.
Fortunately, my father was. A high school social studies teacher, he put Jefferson in historical context, but mostly he explained that great men were often also quite flawed. It was dangerous to equate "remarkable" with "perfect." Better to revere action than individuals. Only God, my father said, could calculate the sum of a lifetime.
This was something I would hear throughout my young and increasingly feminist adulthood, especially when the topic of John F. Kennedy came up. Both my parents were devoted to President Kennedy with the deeply personal passion that many Irish Catholic Americans of their generation felt. Kennedy was everything they could have hoped for in a president: not just a vindication of their own roots but also representative of what they considered a truly Christian government, supportive and compassionate to the needy and oppressed.
Even after years of sordid revelations — the prostitutes, the mistresses, the Marilyn Monroe affair — he remained "our Jack," the bittersweet touchstone of a moment when it seemed to them that this country could shift, radically and irrevocably, toward an age of social enlightenment.
That he made his way through women as if they were sexual Tic Tacs angered and pained them, but it didn't change the way they viewed the man. Hate the sin, love the sinner.
I was raised to love the Kennedys just as I was raised to receive weekly Communion and view Yeats as the world's greatest poet. But I came to political consciousness at a time when it seemed there were far more call girls on Capitol Hill than congresswomen, and I wasn't quite as willing to give "our Jack" a pass.
Kennedy's use of women showed a lack of respect not just to his office, his wife and his faith but to women in general. Did his policies of empowerment and liberal equality outweigh personal choices that seemed to directly contradict those values?
In many ways, John Kennedy personifies the ongoing and ever intensifying battle between reverence and revelation. Should our feelings about a person's work, whether policy, poem or painting, be changed by the posthumous knowledge that the man or woman who created it was anti-Semitic or misogynist or a terrible parent?
The question has never been sharper than it is now, when "transparency" is the watchword, if not the practice, when the famous line between bedroom and boardroom has been irrevocably breached, often with the full participation of all parties — live by the tweet / die by the tweet.
We long for airbrushed, brand-managed perfection, then cry foul when the Photoshopping and marketing ploys are exposed.
Kennedy, intentionally or not, helped usher in this celebrity age. He benefited from the discretion of an earlier media era that sanitized the personal lives of Franklin D. Roosevelt and other presidents. That his physical vigor was compromised by chronic pain and disability certainly didn't make it into the pages of Life magazine any more than the marital compromises his wife endured.
During his presidential campaign, television became a factor in defining a leader's popularity, again to Kennedy's great advantage.
No other president, not even Jefferson, has benefited, and suffered, from our childlike desire to admire without reservation, to sanctify that which we praise. Kennedy was the first political rock star. Not surprisingly, he was loved and hated with a passion rare in American politics.
His assassination, also magnified by the real-time, heartbroken urgency of television, stilled much of that divisiveness with the heavy cloak of grief. But as the tell-all culture intensified, Kennedy became, and remains, a symbol of its opposing forces, the subject of both salacious fascination and sanctified protectiveness.
A few years ago, howls of protest from family and others caused the History Channel to drop "The Kennedys," a miniseries that would have been the network's first scripted drama. Airing finally on the little-seen Reelz, "The Kennedys" was plagued by many problems, but lack of reverence was not one of them. Although it depicted the president's affairs and use of various medications including speed, this JFK was an ambitious but decent man continually beset by physical pain, professional pressure and what would now be described as a sex addiction.
Even now, amid a hailstorm of feature films, documentaries and general revisiting tied to the half-century anniversary of the assassination, the Kennedy mythology remains a national Rorschach. Although adultery continues to flourish inside the Beltway, it is all but impossible to imagine a man with Kennedy's sexual predilections, not to mention his continual use of pain medication, being elected president today.
And yet clips of Kennedy on the campaign trail and in the White House show a man who is in many ways the definition of "presidential," ardently committed to his political course, able even 50 years later to stir great admiration, and antipathy, with his words. That the gap between his image — vigorous sportsman, devoted family man — was as wide as it could be seems less important than his ability to lead.
The assassination didn't just push issues of personal morality aside for many years, it also ensured that Kennedy would never have to endure the ravages of scandal. No man, with the possible exception of David Letterman, looks good while being called out on sexual misconduct. Indeed, as Bill Clinton and countless other politicians have proved, it's the televised cycle of avoidance, denial, often-weaselly admission and hollow-ringing apology that erodes public respect.
"It isn't what he did," goes the modern mantra, "it's that he lied about it."
I was a newborn when Kennedy was shot; in many ways he is as distant a president to me as Thomas Jefferson, defined only by certain portions of his life, assembled this way and that to answer one theme or another. My love for him is an extension of my love for my parents, now both gone. But at this point, in this country, it's difficult to know what to do with the word "legacy." It feels like a trap, a diminution of both the admirable and the despicable. As my father advised all those years ago, it's safer to emulate specific actions.
Idolization requires idols, and people, never mind presidents, are far too complicated for that.
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