A Cultural History of an American Icon
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
Paperback. vii+172 p.ISBN 978-1441161864. £18.99
Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth
Gannon University, Erie (Pennsylvania)
John Kennedy confounds. More than fifty years after his assassination historians and the public fundamentally diverge on the thirty-fifth president’s legacy. Specialists largely agree that JFK’s bequest was more suggestive than substantive. Undeterred, Americans continue to rank him as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. Mark White aims to explain this conundrum.
In Kennedy : A Cultural History of an American Icon, White unravels the dissonance between the public and the academy’s perception of JFK. What follows is a learned and erudite post-revisionist account of JFK’s enduring image, which according to the author, amounts to his “most enduring accomplishment.”  Rather than dismiss the president’s image as immaterial fluff unworthy of scholarly treatment, White explicates the making of an icon.
In retrospect, Kennedy’s death seemingly foreshadows the tragic tumult that was the 1960s. In tune with this sentiment, the early historiography on the thirty-fifth president helped shape this perception. Penned by Kennedy intimates, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William Manchester (among others), these accounts reflect the writers’ personal loss, which was undoubtedly made more acute by the tragedies, triumphs, and calamities of the 1960s. In these works, JFK achieved near mythic status.
Along with Pet Rocks and disco, the 1970s also brought forth Kennedy revisionists. Scarred by Vietnam and Watergate, they depicted JFK as little more than a creature of handlers, a fawning media, and millionaire daddy. Armed with revelations of the president’s reckless dalliances, the revisionists systematically chipped away at the thirty-fifth president’s image.
The revisionists might have tarnished Kennedy’s luster with professional historians, but they did little in the way of de-mythologizing the president with the public. Too cynical by half, the revisionists’ portrait was eventually rectified by the post-revisionists. Eschewing the hero worship of the first generation and the cheap skepticism of the second, post-revisionists place JFK’s illnesses, sexual escapades, and callow youth into perspective. They also give heed to the president’s significant political gifts and achievements, while recognizing the incompleteness of his legacy.
The University of London professor, Mark White, works in the post-revisionist tradition. Uniquely equipped to do so, the author has published prodigiously on Kennedy and the modern US presidency. Instead of penning a full-fledged treatment of Kennedy’s life and president, White’s work offers a post-revisionist account of JFK’s most enduring legacy: his image. Kennedy : A Cultural History of an American Icon should become the standard account on the subject.
Following the post-revisionist path, White makes Kennedy an active agent in establishing his “iconic image.” For those looking for trailblazing tidbits of Kennedy’s life and presidency search elsewhere. Kennedy : A Cultural History of an American Icon, however, is no rehash of known information. In White’s supple hands, he takes standard knowledge and makes those facts add up to something new.
Born to privilege, JFK was also born into a very public family and to a father quite adept at shaping an engaging impression. The author reveals how Joseph Kennedy enabled his son to establish an early yet enduring impression of himself as a scholarly, war hero. Retelling the well-worn stories of Kennedy’s first book, Why England Slept, and PT 109 adventures, White shows that these key events helped a young Kennedy develop his sense of “heroic leadership” before he entered Congress .
For the revisionists, the president was little more than a callow clump of clay for an ambitious father who sold “Jack like soap flakes” . As a post-revisionist, White understands that JFK helped develop his image from the start. To the author, the Congressman’s cultivated sex appeal and sense of heroic leadership accounted for his upset 1952 victory over Henry Cabot Lodge. Thus, JFK entered the US Senate not as a cipher riding his father’s bank account, but as an active politician who helped craft an image that propelled him to stardom.
In the Senate, Kennedy continued to mold and burnish his public image. Marrying Jacqueline Bouvier buttressed his familial bona fides. His young bride proved invaluable in building JFK’s reputation as a benefactor of the arts and culture, which gave added luster to his reputation. His Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, further sustained the image, first established in Why England Slept, as someone advocating “heroic leadership in perilous times” . White argues that JFK’s carefully crafted impression made him a formidable opponent and “enabled him to dazzle the American people” in his televised debates with Richard Nixon .
Hogsheads of ink have been spilled in chronicling JFK’s inaugural address. White accomplishes something novel; he says something fresh and new about the iconic speech. Linking the success of the president’s message to his previously established image, the author argues that Kennedy’s political success was built and sustained by carefully attending to this image. Once in the White House, the president, with the aid of his staff and wife, established his reputation as a cultural leader. This section veritably crackles with great anecdotes regarding the president’s ignorance of the high arts. Aided by charm, self-confidence, and able staff, JFK learned to clap at the appropriate moments of classical music and memorize the names of important composers.
The president’s untimely death not only made “tragedy” a significant piece of his legacy, it enabled Jackie to shape and burnish her husband’s image. The press coverage of the murder and Americans’ desire to invest “broader meaning” into what was an act of “arbitrary violence,” meant the public warmly received claims of Kennedy’s greatness made his wife and associates . Indeed, books, movies and television treatments of Kennedy in the 1960s and 1970s cemented this image of Kennedy as an iconic, hero-leader in the public mind.
As with any cultural history of politics, White’s analysis is by definition subjective. Consequently, any number of his points might strike a reader as tangential or flawed. For instance, the author devotes far too many pages to his claim that James Bond and the young president had somehow become “linked in the public mind” . The sum of White’s work transcends these particular quibbles. John Kennedy actively helped shape his iconic image, which should be understood as a significant political achievement. One suspects that White believes the public has always understood JFK’s lasting importance better than the specialists. Perhaps Kennedy only confounds academicians.
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