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Jack and Jackie sailing at Hyannis Port. President Kennedy smiling and confident with the radiant first lady by his side in Dallas shortly before the assassination. The Zapruder film. Jackie Kennedy mourning at the funeral while her small son salutes the coffin. These images have become larger than life; more than simply photographs of a president, or of celebrities, or of a tragic event, they have an extraordinary power to captivate—today as in their own time.
In Shooting Kennedy, David Lubin speculates on the allure of these and other iconic images of the Kennedys, using them to illuminate the entire American cultural landscape. He draws from a spectacularly varied intellectual and visual terrain—neoclassical painting, Victorian poetry, modern art, Hollywood films, TV sitcoms—to show how the public came to identify personally with the Kennedys and how, in so doing, they came to understand their place in the world. This heady mix of art history, cultural history, and popular culture offers an evocative, consistently entertaining look at twentieth-century America.
Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Donna Reed, Playboy magazine, Jack Ruby, the Rosenbergs, and many more personalities, little-known events, and behind-the-scenes stories of the era enliven Lubin's account as he unlocks the meaning of these photographs of the Kennedys. Elegantly conceived, witty, and intellectually daring, Shooting Kennedy becomes a stylish meditation on the changing meanings of visual phenomena and the ways they affect our thinking about the past, the present, and the process of history.
THIS WAS THE LAST TIME they would see blue sky together. What a lovely day it had turned out to be. When they awoke that morning in Fort Worth, the sky was seeping rain. Not pouring, mind you. It wasn't a hard rain that fell in Fort Worth, only a drear November rain that now seems an omen of tears to come. Everything always looks different in retrospect, and never more so than with the Kennedy assassination.
Had the rain continued, for example, the president's Secret Service agents would have shielded the passenger compartment of the presidential limousine with a protective glass covering that was used to keep rain off the first couple. It wouldn't have stopped an assassin's bullet, but it might have obscured his view. Even if the rain had not subsided, the president would most likely have waved off the bubbletop, had he been on his own. He thrived on direct contact with the crowds that turned out to see him and would not have minded a drenching if it granted him more eye-to-eye engagement.
It would not do, however, for the first lady to get soaked. Spectators who turned out for the presidential motorcade, as eager to gape at her as at her husband, would have been disappointed if she were partially hidden from sight by the rain-deflecting bubbletop. But Jackie's hair, her makeup, her elegant clothing-in a word, her image-were not meant for inclement weather. Or so, apparently, the president thought, and thus, had the rain continued, he probably would have agreed to the use of the bubbletop.
by the time they got to Dallas, the sky had dried its eyes. The day smiled upon them.
THEY FLEW INTO LOVE FIELD at 11:40 in the morning. They'd left Fort Worth a mere thirteen minutes earlier. Understand, Fort Worth and Dallas neighbor each other on the Texas plain, a mere thirty miles apart. The Kennedys could have gotten from one town to the other more rapidly and efficiently by car than by airplane. But neither speed nor efficiency was the primary consideration. Jack Kennedy grasped the importance of ceremony in public life. The arrival of the people's leader needed to be grand and majestic, an occasion of fanfare and spectacle. As I've noted, Kennedy was nothing if not a manager of image-his own, his wife's, his nation's. No president before him, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt, had demonstrated such a gift for shaping his image, parceling it out, honing it, making it shine. Jack Kennedy got to the top by making himself visible, the object of the people's admiring and desiring gaze. His insistence on maximizing his visibility that day is what got him killed.
He knew the dangers. The Secret Service agents were continually urging him to remain behind cover-that of the bubbletop or their own protective ring of bodies-but Jack had too much at stake in living dangerously to acquiesce. Some men only affect a devil-may-care attitude about their own personal safety, determined, in reality, to keep out of harm's way. Kennedy seems to have been the opposite. While his public persona was that of a calm man guided by reason and circumspection, in fact he had a gambler's compulsive attraction to risk.
America had prevailed during the Cuban missile crisis, it was widely believed, because the president remained cool when others, his generals, for example, were inclined to be precipitate. But in private Jack courted danger, as if its adrenaline rush granted him the strength-the "vigah"-that his cortisone treatments for various physical ailments (and Dr. Jacobson's amphetamine cocktails) provided less reliably.
One day, for example, when sailing off Palm Beach with the fashion designer Oleg Cassini, a family friend, he decided to go for a swim, even though the Secret Service warned that sharks had been reported in the area. "The President jumped in, however, and it was quite a sight: the coast guard boats circling in close, creating almost a swimming-pool-sized protective circumference in the ocean, and there, in the middle, the President, treading water and puffing a cigar. He loved the grand gesture, the successful gamble. That morning, he had played against the sharks and won-and, signaling for a line, he allowed himself to be pulled back onto the yacht, triumphantly puffing all the while."
Jack's bravado was that of a man who, his biographers concur, believed he should already have died from childhood illness, war injuries, life-threatening spinal surgery, or their lethal combination. As a conspicuously underweight member of Harvard's football team, he had thrown himself into the roughest possible situations to prove himself, getting knocked flat time and again by beefier players and always pulling himself up off the turf to embrace more punishment. Not long after college, he became a bona fide war hero. No one has ever suggested that during the war he deliberately placed himself in danger, but when he faced it, he seems almost to have relished the experience. The patrol torpedo (PT) boat he commanded in the South Pacific split in two when rammed in the middle of the night by an unsuspecting Japanese destroyer. Jack swam alongside his men to the nearest island, several miles away, towing, with a cord held between his teeth, a badly wounded sailor. On subsequent nights, he swam off to surrounding islands until finally he made contact with friendly islanders and through them got a message to headquarters that led to the rescue of his stranded contingent.
Some of Kennedy's critics charged that the PT-109 episode was embellished by journalists looking for a good story and made too much of by Joe Kennedy when his son ran for a seat in Congress. Jack, however, never boasted about the incident. When asked how he became a war hero, he replied, "It was involuntary; they sank my boat."
That has the laconic sound of something Jack's movie star hero Gary Cooper would have said, but it's witty too. "He appeared to be beautifully on to himself," Gore Vidal later remarked. "As a result, there were few intellectuals in 1960 who were not beguiled by the spectacle of a President who seemed always to be standing at a certain remove from himself, watching himself with amusement at his own performance. He was an ironist in a profession where the prize usually goes to the apparent cornball."
THE ENGLISH HEROES of Jack's childhood, such as the Knights of the Round Table, talked in flowery language, but those of his early adulthood, such as Lord Byron, taught him the pleasures of understatement. Kennedy's "It was involuntary; they sank my boat" exhibits the same wry eloquence as Byron's recollection of how he became a literary celebrity: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." Given his own nature and aspirations, how could young Kennedy not have sought to model himself on an ironist who lived like an aristocrat, loved like a libertine, died like a hero?
Another of Jack's idols was the English aristocrat Raymond Asquith, a prime minister's son who was killed in action in World War I. Kennedy read about Asquith in one of his favorite books, Pilgrim's Way, by the Scottish historian, diplomat, and spy novelist John Buchan (his 1915 book The Thirty-nine Steps gave rise to the modern espionage thriller). Appearing in 1940, at the start of World War II, Pilgrim's Way celebrated the bravery and self-sacrifice of the generation that had fought in the previous war. According to Buchan, who had been close to Asquith, his "debonair and brilliant and brave" friend readily put his life on the line for his country but never made a show of it, preferring instead to hide "his devotions under a mask of indifference." A year after the assassination, Jackie recalled Buchan's elegant formulation about Asquith, which she thought applied equally well to her slain husband: "He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply."
Buchan's verbal portrait of Asquith calls upon a classical rhetoric of patriotic obligation that Kennedy himself invoked, to great effect, during his presidency. "Our roll of honor is long, but it holds no nobler figure," Buchan writes of the fallen warrior. "He will stand to those of us who are left as an incarnation of the spirit of the land he loved." Buchan's parting remark about his friend-"He loved his youth, and his youth has become eternal"-might well have been in Jackie's mind when she requested that Jack's grave in Arlington National Cemetery be marked by an "eternal" flame.
"In the early deaths of war heroes in Pilgrim's Way," John Hellmann writes in his examination of literary and cinematic influences on the president, "Kennedy could see male beauty preserved by death, a narcissistic, much admired masculine image ennobled by self-sacrifice for a great cause." He continues:
On his way to the South Pacific, Kennedy was in a somewhat different situation from most of the men around him. While he enjoyed enormous advantages of wealth, he journeyed toward war with considerable reason to believe that an early death, or perhaps a debilitated life, awaited him if he survived to return home. Kennedy was hardly suicidal in his intent, but his recommendations of Pilgrim's Way to his fellow officers reflected his love of a book that depicted suffering and death in war in achingly beautiful, even homoerotic, terms-as an achievement of a masculine nobility that could never be lost.
Hellmann concludes that John Kennedy consistently, if unconsciously, courted danger as a response to his lifelong life-threatening physical infirmities and to the overweening political ambition fanned in him by his father. His ongoing sexual and political adventurism, his obsession with proving himself extraordinary "both in bed and on the podium," grew directly out of his self-perceived inadequacies.
JFK's identification with Byron and other heroes of English history drew him to a corollary idea-of America as "legitimate successor to the Empire as defender of freedom in the world." In his quest to achieve personal glories similar to theirs, JFK imbibed the ethos of eighteenth- through early-twentieth-century British imperialism and reinvented it for the new cold war era.
IN THE 1950S IAN FLEMING joined John Buchan and David Cecil on the list of authors whose books Kennedy enjoyed. Fleming's suave hero James Bond was in certain essentials a cold war counterpart to Richard Hannay, the protagonist of Buchan's earlier spy novels. At home in elite society and able to maneuver through it with finesse, but not at all "unmanly" or effete, both characters could adapt to any situation and meet any challenge. Jack encountered the first of the Bond novels, Casino Royale (1953), when Jackie brought him a copy during his hospital stay after spine surgery in 1954.
The 007 ethos appears to have influenced not only Kennedy's private but also his political intrigues. At a Georgetown dinner party with Ian Fleming in 1960, he listened seriously to Fleming's schemes for sexually embarrassing Castro or even assassinating him with a poison pen or an exploding cigar. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which he had relied on bad advice from the Central Intelligence Agency, Jack ruefully remarked, "It would have been better if we left it to James Bond."
Bond was a fantasy figure for those like Jack Kennedy who had the wherewithal to emulate his social and sexual savoire-faire and for a wide range of other men during the cold war era. The Bond movies (Dr. No came first in 1962, followed by From Russia with Love in 1963 and Goldfinger in 1964) extended the impact of the imaginary secret agent on run-of-the-mill male fantasy, setting the hearts of boys and men aflutter with Bond on-screen (as embodied by the darkly handsome and debonair Sean Connery) as well as on the page (Fig. 34).
Take Lee Harvey Oswald, for example. In the summer of 1963, recently fired from his job as a maintenance mechanic at a coffee warehouse, he found himself with nothing but time on his hands. He used it to read, among other books, a biography of Mao Tse-tung, a diatribe on Communism by J. Edgar Hoover, a biography of John Kennedy, and four James Bond thrillers. While it remains a matter of speculation whether Oswald was an operative for the CIA, FBI, KGB, none of them, or all them, his credentials as an admirer of 007 are indisputable.
A 1964 reader's guide to the Bond novels extols the fictional character's sexual prowess:
Almost every personable female he meets seems more than ready to hop into bed with him at his merest nod. Waitresses brush against him provocatively, married women appear to be his for the asking, other men's mistresses forget their lovers when they see him, and even expensive whores are willing to bestow their favours pour amour.... Occasionally, though, he meets a girl who has no immediate intention-or eventual intention, for that matter-of copulating with him. More often than not he wins her over. This is usually accomplished by derring-do.
"Derring-do." The very term connotes something archaic, primitive, premodern. It comes from the Middle English verb phrase derrynge do, meaning "daring to do," but Sir Walter Scott popularized it as a noun in his chivalric novel Ivanhoe. It thence came to mean daring, even foolhardy, action or reckless courage. The Romantics cherished derring-do because it showed an exhilarating carelessness toward circumspection and other middle-class conventions of behavior.
James Bond comes from a long line of male Romantic heroes who inspire ardor in readers by their nonchalant acceptance of extreme personal risk in the quest for some great, hallowed goal. Such a goal might be protecting Her Majesty's commonwealth from nefarious enemies (007), or launching a secret invasion of "freedom fighters" against Cuba (JFK), or gunning down the "treasonous" president of the United States (LHO).
AN UNSIGNED HANDBILL circulating in Dallas during the days leading up to the president's arrival featured front and side mug shots of Kennedy with the words "Wanted for treason" printed in bold type. Beneath them the handbill continued, "This man is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States." It accused him of "betraying the Constitution," "turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the Communist controlled United Nations," and (among other sins) lending his "support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots." Whether Oswald ever saw this circular is unknown, but he certainly would have heard of such charges against the president.
My point is not Kennedy's treason or Oswald's guilt. It is that both men, along with millions of other readers who admired the Bond adventure tales, swilled the Romantic ideology of derring-do as a confirmation of potency, sexual and otherwise.
Excerpted from SHOOTING KENNEDY by DAVID M. LUBIN Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Twenty-six Seconds
2. "Gentle Be the Breeze, Calm Be the Waves"
3. A Marriage like Any Other
4. Blue Sky, Red Roses
5. Hit the Road, Jack
6. Kennedy Shot
7. The Loneliest Job in the World
8. Down in the Basement