Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cardinal Cushing and the Kennedy Myth

In a piece for The National Post entitled, "The Kennedy myth - and why we believed it," Robert Fulford writes, "William Manchester, who died on Tuesday at the age of 82, gave the title One Brief Shining Moment to the last of his three books about John F. Kennedy. Camelot, the musical that contained those words, opened the year Kennedy was elected, but while he was alive no one connected his presidency and the Knights of the Roundtable. It was only after his assassination that his widow introduced this theme. She told journalist Theodore White that her husband had hoped his era might resemble King Arthur's as depicted on Broadway, a time of magic and nobility.

That notion, which JFK may have mentioned only briefly, was rushed into Life magazine by White and then repeated endlessly. It gave the Kennedy administration a trademark and a mythical dimension that have survived all revelations of scandal. When it first appeared in print it sounded vain and foolish, but it was ironically appropriate. King Arthur's time exists as 6th-century folklore reinvented by fiction writers. And Kennedy as the public knew him was also largely fictional, the finest political legend fabricated in modern times, devised by Kennedy and his band of helpers, paid and volunteer.

The obituaries depicted Manchester as an honest popular historian, but on the subject of his old friend Kennedy, he wrote like a press agent. His Portrait of a President, in 1962, demonstrated (as Tom Wicker said in The New York Times) that the portraitist was 'smitten' and 'gazed upon the subject with loving eyes,' finding redeeming beauty in every flaw.

In 1967 Manchester's book on the assassination, Death of a President, involved him in a dispute with Jacqueline Kennedy over what should be said about the family and about their antipathy to JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson. But it contained nothing to upset anyone who considered Kennedy a great man. Nor did One Brief Shining Moment, in 1983, another product of Manchester's adoration.

It's often said that TV made Kennedy hugely popular, but at the time, still photos and books seemed more important. Kennedy kept a talented photographer on staff and always looked good in stills (unlike John Kerry, who sometimes looks unpleasantly vulpine in his photos). Meanwhile, a series of books expanded Kennedy's legend and funnelled material to thousands of journalists.

Everyone seemed anxious to sustain the legend. Reporters, cultivated and flattered by Kennedy, seem to have desperately wanted his approval. They became guardians of his privacy, as he defined it. His secrets were safe with them.

Every detail of his life, large or small, required editing. A philanderer of epic appetites, he appeared in print as a solid family man.

The world wasn't allowed to know he smoked cigars (they symbolized the old-fashioned politics he was allegedly replacing) or that he needed reading glasses. More important, he and his doctors hid the fact that he was terribly ill and heavily medicated during much of his adult life. They all successfully presented him as healthy, youthful and vigorous, a man whose worst problem was an unreliable back.

Aside from Manchester, the authors who provided the basis for Kennedy worship were Theodore White, Arthur Schlesinger, and Ted Sorenson.

White's 1961 best-seller, The Making of the President, portrayed JFK and all his followers as intelligent, high-minded, and witty. Schlesinger, the historian who served on Kennedy's staff, wrote a brilliant and enthusiastic memoir, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Ted Sorenson, the chief speech-writer, wrote Kennedy, covering the same territory. Together they set a tone that lasted for 15 years.

These were works of hagiography, written by the pious for the pious, received with the same respect given to lives of saints. Kennedy appears in all of them as a man of bravery and honour, facing terrifying problems with high principles.

Literary people especially admired those qualities, and liked to hear that Kennedy read books. Norman Mailer, who went to the Democratic convention in 1960 as a reporter for Esquire, was the most surprising and (at the time) most famous of his idolaters. He acknowledged that Kennedy's political ideas were ordinary, but he was so excited by Kennedy's presence that he admitted doing his "best to write a piece which would help him to get elected."

In a much-admired article, Superman Comes To The Supermarket, Mailer wrote about him with urgency and romantic admiration. He argued that Kennedy was not only intelligent, attractive and highly composed ("he carried himself with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause") but also profound, an American in the great tradition of self-defining adventure. Later, in a moment of honesty never approached by the other Kennedy celebrants, Mailer called that piece "an act of propaganda."

Much of the world fell as hard for Kennedy as Mailer did.

Certainly I was an unabashed JFK admirer, like most people I knew at the time. Why did we believe in this elaborate fiction? For the usual reason. We wanted to believe. We embraced, perhaps for the first and last time in our lives, an ancient ideal of virtue, wisdom and beauty embodied in one great leader. Foolish thinking, of course, but not entirely ignoble."

Fulford doesn't delve into the matter, but the truth is that numerous priests and Bishops were also anxious to sustain the legend and to weave a hagiography which portrayed Kennedy as a man of virtue and even a martyr.  In a live Boston radio broadcast which aired on April 21, 1964, Richard Cardinal Cushing said, "I would prefer imprisonment and death under a slave state than membership in an organization [and here he was referring to the John Birch Society] which has branded a martyred President of the United States as a Communist.  If it is true that two members of this society called my nearest and dearest friend, the late John F. Kennedy, a Communist, they and their associates owe the people of all nations who loved him and who will never forget his tragic death a profound apology.  If it is also true that these two members of the Birch Society identified me with such an incredible remark, I cannot dignify them with an answer save to say - shame, shame, shame for attempting to blight the character and mar the memory and distort the image of a martyr..."

Now granted that certain members of the fringe John Birch Society had inappropriately referred to Kennedy as a Communist.  But for Cardinal Cushing to depict JFK as a "martyr" is equally revolting.  The Catechism teaches us that, "Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.  The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity.  He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine.  He endures death through an act of fortitude..." (2473).  And paragraph 2474 cites St. Ignatius of Antioch (Ad Rom. 4, 1: SCh 10, 110) as saying that, "Neither the pleasures of the world nor the kingdoms of this age will be of any use to me.  It is better for me to die [in order to unite myself] to Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth.."

Contrast the attitude of St. Ignatius of Antioch [a true martyr] with that of John F. Kennedy.  Again, in Cardinal Cushing's words, "As for the martyred President Kennedy personally, I liked the way he got ahead of it all.  He gave his honest opinion: 'Here I am.  This is what I believe, and I am a Democrat who is a Catholic.  I am not a Catholic running for office.  I am the nominee of the Democratic Party.  I happen to be a Catholic.  I am responsible for my conduct in that religion, but as President of the United States I am obligated to the Constitution.'  He had courage, he had confidence; his election has clarified a lot of false thinking." (Cushing of Boston: A Candid Portrait, by Joseph Dever, p. 211).

Kennedy was the very antithesis of Ignatius of Antioch.  One rejected the pleasures of this world and chose to unite himself with Christ Jesus rather than seek earthly power and to sacrifice himself for his Catholic faith.  The other lived a life of unbridled lust and put politics and earthly power before his Catholic faith.

Cushing's hagiography of an unfaithful Catholic is nothing less than embarassing and scandalous.  But by no means unique.  So many, as Fulford reminds us, bought into the lie. 


ACatholicinClinton said...

In his eulogy, Cardinal Cushing has Kennedy already in Heaven and depicts him as a prophet of sorts as well as a martyr:

Anonymous said...

You can be certain that college students at Manhattenville and Newton College of the Sacred Heart had an 'earful' about the many trysts that were arranged for Jack Kennedy when he was a senator. Certainly the nuns, the Madames of the Sacred Heart, were aware of the many rumors that circulated around the campuses. For that reason, I never could understand why ,when he was a senator, Sen. Jack Kennedy was invited to be the speaker at the graduation ceremony at Newton College of the Sacred Heart in 1953. I figured it had something to do with the fact that Rose Kennedy always favored the Madames of the Sacred Heart since, I think Rose was sent to a Sacred Heart Convent in Europe when her father,"Honey Fitz", was in involved in a sexual scandal when she was a young girl.
Being secretive about Jack Kennedy's sexual proclivities and getting so many young women to work so hard to get him elected. as people such as Polly Fitzgerald did using the members of the Ace of Clubs, was a great disservice to the integrity of the teaching of the Catholic faith regarding marriage. Accepting his behavior as nothing to be worried about, brought about a 'so what!' attitude among many Catholics. I wonder if they have second thoughts about this when they witness the secular attitude towards marriage today.

Michelle said...

Joseph Kennedy introduced his sons to pornography. I wonder how much of a chance JFK really had. A sad, tragic family.

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