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How JFK's Myth Has Prevented People from Taking a Look at the Man Himself

Today we think of Kennedy in terms of myth: the golden hero of a bygone age whose life was cut down in a mysterious tragedy. But if we move past nostalgia and conspiracy, what remains of the 35th president's legacy?

JFK will go down in history as the most sun-kissed of all the presidents.

Seated behind his anchor’s desk, Edward R. Murrow lights up a cigarette while listening to John F. Kennedy read a passage from poet Alan Seeger.

It's one of the coolest interview snippets in the history of American media. And that says a lot about what JFK has become: an icon who once happened to be president. My generation knows him as a really good-looking guy who married a really good-looking woman, with whom he had really good-looking children before he was assassinated. His life was a sepia-toned movie, his death is shrouded in mystery. But the details of his presidency are, at best, vaguely understood, and mostly we ignore his political legacy. Bay of Pigs? Don’t harsh the mellow, bro—just look at that hair.

The Murrow interview serves as excellent icon maintenance, and the exact kind of artifact that seems to have given much of America selective memory when it comes to Jack Kennedy.

I watched that interview clip in a darkened theatre in the museum and library in Columbia Point, Boston, that bears the 35th president’s name. The building is a gilded tribute to impossibilities of the Kennedy family: impossible amounts of power, impossible handsomeness and charisma, impossible death.

Inside the museum, there's JFK doing ridiculously JFK things wherever you look: JFK being smooth in Ireland, JFK playing football shirtless on Cape Cod, JFK being a war hero, JFK—seated next to his brother, Bobby—tangling with Jimmy Hoffa during a congressional hearing, JFK breaking ground on civil rights, JFK winning the biggest dick-swinging contest of the 1960s, also known as the Cuban Missile Crisis—all while being elegant and dignified.

I've seen it all before, and that's the problem. The reality of the Kennedy family has always been much more interesting than all the "Camelot" bullshit the family, as well as large sections of the media, seems so keen to foist on a public still hungry for myth. What about rumors that a Kennedy speechwriter was the one who actually wrote Profiles in Courage, the book that won Kennedy the Pulitzer? Did he drag his feet on civil rights, as some historians maintain? What about the Vietnam War, which he started? His rocky relationship with his successor, Lyndon B Johnson? His pedestrian record in Congress? Or his constant sleeping around, some of which sounds incredibly creepy?

Instead, displayed in the museum, there is Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress.

Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress

JFK’s birthplace is a house on a quiet street in Brookline, Massachusetts, that's now a national landmark. It was another exercise in carefully cultivated Kennedy family lore. Visitors look at the room he was born in. There is talk of the type of motifs the bed linens had. I had to suppress a groan when the tour guide told us one of JFK’s favorite books as a child was King Arthur. Because of course it was. I really just want to know if his father brought his mistresses back here.

Irish Catholic families from Massachusetts like mine are supposed to be ground zero for unabashed and steadfast Kennedy adulation. A framed photo of JFK is supposed to adorn all of our grandmothers’ wood-panelled walls, right next to the lace curtains and photo of the current pope. Growing up, I took my political cues from JFK’s younger brother, the late Senator Edward Kennedy. If the senator was for it, I was for it. (Chappaquiddick and Teddy's propensity to act like a frat boy on Kentucky Derby Day for long stretches of his Capitol Hill career is a whole other discussion, but it’s fair to say that the Kennedy brand can take quite a battering before people turn against it.)

But listening to the tour guide drone on about the mothering techniques of Rose Kennedy (hugs were rationed out to the kids), I don’t know how to feel about my state’s most famous family.

Take the sole Kennedy remaining in Congress, 33-year-old Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (Bobby’s grandson) who began his first term earlier this year, replacing longtime liberal firebrand Barney Frank. The former prosecutor appears to be a smart, hardworking politician. But there are plenty of young and capable assistant district attorneys in Boston. Only one has the political juice to get elected to Congress.

The tragedies of JFK and his brother Bobby, as well as the significant political power the family still wields, has a lot to do with all of that. Even today, some Kennedys still seem to think that public office is a birthright—JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, briefly pursued the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton in 2008, despite having limited political experience, an arrogant move that caused many, in essence, to ask, "Who the fuck does she think she is?" Oh, right: she's JFK's daughter. (Caroline is now the ambassador to Japan.)

Today, on the 50th anniversary of his death, I'm still working out how I feel about all things Kennedy. But in the museum, there's a moment when the man himself summarizes my thoughts pretty succinctly. In a recorded speech looped over some Kennedy footage, JFK is talking about the perils of myth-making.

"Mythology distracts us everywhere," he says. I believe him.

Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash

More on JFK:

Changing the Guard

The Other Shooter

The Return of the Hat