The few years of the Kennedy Administration have been called a Camelot, but the term is more applicable to John F. Kennedy’s symbol of American liberty and determination in foreign policy rather than in his domestic or economic policies. In fact, his two years in office weren’t enough to either damage or benefit America’s economy. Instead, his hard line with communist USSR in the Cubin Missile Crisis and giving America inspiration in the space race was a last glimpse of prestige for the Office of the President before the Johnson and Nixon years. Kennedy’s presidency represented an optimism amidst a tumultuous time; a hope for the American president against communism. Truly tragic would have been the assassination of any American president in the early 60s, whether he ran the country well or ill; a sentiment not as easily shared today. Perhaps, the American sense of loyalty for the Office of the President was akin to the Biblical example of David, “I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” (I Samuel 24:10). Kennedy was the "Lord's anointed" for a particular time in American history. In the context of a Christian America during the mid 20th Century, the assassination of Kennedy was the passing of a legendary Camelot before the shroud of the Vietnam War and American pessimism. Modern historians are naturally somewhat skeptical of allowing any element of legend to enter historical research. However, Jacqueline Kennedy offers the credible challenge that there is common ground between history and drama.
Legend is the child of bereavement; that glimpse of nightfall when a knight passes beyond the horizon of that which is no more. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of one of his characters in Tales of a Wayside Inn:
In vellum bound, with gold bedight,
Great volumes garmented in white,
Recalling Florence, Pisa, Rome.
He loved the twilight that surrounds
The border-land of old romance;
Where glitter hauberk, helm, and lance,
And banner waves, and trumpet sounds,
And ladies ride with hawk on wrist,
And mighty warriors sweep along,
Magnified by the purple mist,
The dusk of centuries and of song.
In this context, legend is not necessarily untrue, although many legends are myths. It is an attempt to understand the significance of events that are final in their ends; a search for a legacy of what has passed. Medieval Camelot, as a once glamorous place long since sunk into the pages of history, exists only as a memorial. When legends become memorials, they are more likely to be applied and reapplied to future events of history, which resemble certain themes of the original legend. This begs the question, should the historian have an appreciation for an application of legend and significance in history? November 22, 1963 marks the death date of two individuals who believed legend was purposeful: C. S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy. Lewis wrote much on myth as a theologian, but Kennedy devoured history and legendary stories of King Author just for entertainment. This pastime of Kennedy’s was something Jacqueline Kennedy never really understood or appreciated until after Kennedy’s death. However, being confronted with bereavement herself over someone who was not only her husband but also a US President, she reminisced over his appreciation for heroic stories, one of which was Camelot. She asked the rhetorical question that many historians would be better to hear, “what’s the line between histrionics and drama?” As Jacqueline’s personal account of her husband’s death demonstrates, history must be cried or laughed at like drama; otherwise it loses its significance in the tragedies and blessings to human existence.
Jacqueline’s Camelot interview
Title image composite by Jonathan VanDerhoof of Kennedys arrive at Dallas 11-22-63 and John william waterhouse tristan and isolde with the potion from Wikipedia