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And so the legend of Camelot was born

The official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy, by Aaron Shikler.A week after John F. Kennedy was murdered on November 22, 1963, his widow summoned writer and historian Theordore H. White to Hyannisport. She wanted White to write an essay for Life magazine that would compare JFK’s presidency to Camelot, the mythical kingdom of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. ‘There’ll be great Presidents again,’ Jackie told White, ‘but there’ll never be another Camelot.’

White obliged and that night, after talking with Mrs. Kennedy for four hours, dictated his essay to two Life editors over the phone. It was published in the December 6 issue and quoted the Broadway musical that contained the line, ‘Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.’

Nearly two decades later, White reassessed the Camelot legend in his book, In Search of History. He wrote brilliantly, as usual, about JFK’s time in the White House. But more important, he talked about modern America — ungovernable America? — and the era of history we’re now living in.

White died in 1986. Here’s what he wrote five years before:

‘So the epitaph on the Kennedy administration became Camelot — a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.

‘Which, of course, is a misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed. Instead, there began in Kennedy’s time an effort of government to bring reason to bear on facts which were becoming almost too complicated for human minds to grasp. No Merlins advised John F. Kennedy, no Galahads won high praise in his service.

‘The knights of his round table were able, tough, ambitious men, capable of kindness, also capable of error, but as a group of men more often right than wrong and astonishingly incorruptible. What made them a group and established their companionship was their leader. Of them all, Kennedy was the toughest, the most intelligent, the most attractive — and inside, the least romantic. He was a realistic dealer in men, a master of games who understood the importance of ideas. He assumed his responsibilities fully. He advanced the cause of America at home and abroad. But he also posed for the first time the great question of the sixties and seventies: What kind of people are we Americans? What do we want to become?’


Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.

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