“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”
— “ Camelot” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe
In the months leading up to and following the election of Barack Obama, media pundits are purporting that the 44th president and his young family will duplicate the so-called “Camelot” era of the 35th president, John F. Kennedy.
The “Camelot” of the Kennedy years was a reference to the hugely successful Broadway musical “Camelot,” which had opened just a month after Kennedy’s election. Starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and the then-unknown Robert Goulet, it ran for 873 performances, won four Tony awards and was America’s top-selling record album for 60 weeks. The musical drew upon mythology to evoke the magical concept of an unknown place where the legendary King Arthur was thought to have blissfully lived way back in the sixth century.
From the Jan. 20, 1961, inaugural balls onward, the press presented the Kennedy family as being part of a new magical dream for the American future. Kennedy’s better half, Jacqueline, or “Jackie” as we preferred to call her, was portrayed as the perfect wife — sort of a June Cleaver with diamonds and servants. Jackie could speak French, carried herself elegantly and was the doting mother of two small children, 4-year-old Caroline and John Jr. (whom we called “John-John”), born shortly after JFK was elected. Life and Look magazines had a field day, as did the venerable Saturday Evening Post in those pre-People days. It appeared to indeed be a new Camelot.
Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (D-Mass.) was elected Nov. 8, 1960. His victory was an upset over Republican Richard M. Nixon, who was completing eight years as a very visible vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. For the first time, both major candidates had been born in the 20th century. At 43, Kennedy was the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic to be elected to the nation’s top office. Ironically, it was the Irish Catholics of Cook County in Illinois that helped push Kennedy over the top. It was rumored that many of those voters had been dead for years.
Mr. Nixon carried 26 of the then-48 states, including his home state of California, to Kennedy’s 22. However, Kennedy garnered 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. The margin of victory for Kennedy was just 112,827 popular votes, but Nixon eschewed a recount, not wanting to further divide the country.
So, we have 43-year-old Kennedy, a father of two with an elegant wife coming into office at a time when America was fed up with old Republicans running the country. Sound familiar? Well, hold your horses for just a minute. It ain’t that simple.
While Kennedy was the youngest and the first non-Protestant president and Obama is the second black president (after Bill Clinton, whom author Toni Morrison characterized as the “first black president” in a 1998 New Yorker article. Her opinion was shared by the Congressional Black Caucus when they honored Clinton in 2001), and Obama and Kennedy both have/had young kids and a beautiful wife, that’s where the similarity ends. Oh, and there is also the Chicago Democratic political machine to consider. I almost forgot.
Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., was immensely wealthy and politically powerful. He was a friend of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and served as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of King James in London as England was drawn into World War II with Germany. Kennedy had been grooming his eldest son, Joe Jr., to be president some day, but Joe Jr. was killed in a war-related aircraft training exercise. So, the mantle fell upon No. 2 son, John.
JFK was a Purple Heart-decorated wartime naval hero and the subject of a book, “PT-109,” later made into a film starring Cliff Robertson. In 1957, Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage,” a collection of accounts of other heroes of history. In May 2008, Kennedy friend Ted Sorensen admitted that the award-winning work ascribed to JFK was, in reality, largely Sorensen’s effort.
Kennedy received good press and we Americans of both parties couldn’t help but follow the lives of America’s favorite family, the First Family. President JFK had a bunch of tough issues to deal with, both domestic and international. He made decisions, good and bad, and he spoke intelligently and could express himself well. He was handsome and engaging and had the media eating out of his hand at the many press conferences he conducted.
And then came that fateful Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when the Camelot that was Kennedy ended in downtown Dallas. “Camelot” the musical had ended its own run just months earlier and there was nothing left except a grandfatherly but powerful Texan named Lyndon B. Johnson, who delighted in showing his gall bladder operation scar to anyone who would look.
Obama and his family will not be able to duplicate the Camelot of the Kennedy years any more than Kennedy could duplicate it himself today. For there to be another Camelot in 2009, there must be a concurrent “Camelot” playing on Broadway. At the inaugural ball, there must be a sense of magic in the darkened room and a candlelit table where husband and wife gaze lovingly into each other’s dreamy eyes. There must be soft music in the background and a reverential hush from the political hacks and hangers-on standing just off camera. There must be a sense that the private lives of this family, the First Family, should be off-limits to the media. And there must be the same sense of self-reliant challenge and adventure that the Kennedy Camelot offered America and the world for the decade known as the Sixties.
But here, in the decade known as the Oughts, one is hard-pressed to find an environment that could sustain a King Arthur. Just ask any bell-ringing Santa in Chicago this holiday season and he’ll tell you, “No, Virginia, there ain’t no Camelot.”
And there probably won’t be one in the immediate future. At least not until Chelsea Clinton-Kennedy’s third term.
Bill Gronvold is a writer who lives in Kenai and Florida.