The Myth of Camelot

The legacy of John f Kennedy lies largely in the idea of Camelot, the mythical English kingdom of Arthur and the knights of the round table. The Kennedy-Camelot connection is built on the idea of a young idealistic president surrounding himself himself with the “best and the brightest” minds that America had to offer and those “best” men saving the world through chivalry, courage and righteousness. One has to ask: Was Kennedy’s Camelot more fact or more fiction? Where did the idea of Camelot come from? Where the “best and the brightest” really just that?

The foundation of Kennedy’s Camelot is that he created an administration with advisors that were like those of Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable. Kennedy’s advisors, many of which were academics and intellectuals, were called the “best and the brightest”, but were they truly the best people for the positions they were given? Outside of Robert Kennedy, not really. These were the men that led the country down the road to Vietnam, often against the advice of career employees at the state department. Kennedy’s advisors also pushed for the Bay of Pigs, his biggest failure, and they urged an attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis that could have led to a nuclear exchange. Even if one considers John Kennedy to be worthy of the Arthurian title, the only worthy knight that he had to put at his round table was his brother Robert.

The myth of Camelot came from Jackie Kennedy in an interview with Life magazine that she did just seven days after her husband had died. Jackie’s utmost priority was protecting her husband’s legacy and making sure that he was remembered in a positive light. To do this Jackie spun her husband’s presidency as an American Camelot. In the interview with Theodore White, which Jackie only agreed to if she would be allowed to edit the final product, she stated that John would often listen to songs from his favorite musical, Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner. During the interview Jackie even quoted the musical saying: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot”. Jackie even insisted that White make the Camelot reference the focal point of the story, stating that “There will never be another Camelot again”, even though the Camelot connecting never existed before this interview.

One can’t blame Kennedy’s widow for trying to protect the memory of her slain husband, but many authors and historians took the Camelot imagery and ran with it. The first books wrote about Kennedy were by historians and loyalists, who imbedded the Camelot myth. If it had only been in Jackie’s interview for LIFE magazine, then it would have eventually faded into history, but with respected historians, especially Arthur Schlesinger Jr. pushing the narrative, the Camelot myth was burned into the American psyche. Whereas Jackie is always cited for creating the myth of Camelot, it was Schlesinger that promulgated the myth and gave it long lasting life.

Beyond the magazine articles and the books, Kennedy had a lot going for him that made the myth seem appropriate. He had an glamourous wife and a beautiful family. He was a charismatic speaker that put forth and image of youth and vitality. Americans loved the first family. After Kennedy’s administration, the country fell into the pitfall of Vietnam abroad with crime and unrest at home. Even after Lyndon Johnson was out of the White House and Richard Nixon extracted America from Vietnam and restored order in the streets, the revelations of Watergate came along. Gerald Ford‘s pardon of Nixon left a bitter taste in people’s mouths, which was followed up by Jimmy Carter‘s malaise. Certainly the shortcomings of the Johnson through Carter years were ample reason for Americans to think that the Kennedy years were a special time in history. Those seventeen years lent credence to the Camelot myth. The thought had to cross some people’s minds that Jackie Kennedy was right when she said “There will never be another Camelot again”.

The Camelot myth of John Kennedy never existed, though many have done much to sustain it as Kennedy’s legacy. While Kennedy was a better president than his immediate four successors, he wasn’t a noble king of Arthurian legend and his advisors weren’t chivalrous knights. Kennedy had his faults, and the myth was meant to shroud those faults. There was more than meets the eye behind the glamourous image of the young first family, which was created even before he entered the White House. Kennedy was a philanderer, which doesn’t exclude him from being a good or great president, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the Camelot myth. The “best and the brightest”, outside of Robert Kennedy, were average at best. Kennedy was also willing to get dirty and do the political horse trading that every president must engage in to be successful. Kennedy was a good president and a fine American, but the time has passed to put the Camelot myth to bed.

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