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Graham: Kennedy’s Camelot is as real as Arthur’s Round Table

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Posted Nov. 22, 2013

By Don Graham - Special to the American-Statesman

One week after the assassination of her husband, Jackie Kennedy spoke at length with journalist Theodore H. White. Sounding like a precursor of Hillary Clinton, she said: “What difference does it make whether he was killed by the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, or simply some half-crazed misanthrope? It won’t change anything. It won’t bring him back. What matters now is that Jack’s death be placed in some kind of lasting historical context.” And she had a brilliant idea for doing exactly that — the image of Camelot. Yes, that was it. The Kennedy White House was right out of Arthurian legend. To drive home her point, she quoted from a song in the Lerner and Loewe musical “Camelot” of 1960: “There once was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” 

The truth is much simpler. Kennedy’s death did not mark the end of Camelot; it marked the beginning. But much of what is written about the Kennedy years today still follow’s Jackie’s lead. From Bill O’Reilly’s subtitle to “Killing Kennedy — The End of Camelot” to Robert Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court,” the evocation of this spurious myth continues unabated. In Scott D. Reich’s homily, published this fall, “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation,” the author urges young Americans to remember Kennedy because, “He made us feel good, and he left us with a romantic image of Camelot — an image we collectively still cherish today.” The famous “ask not...” line in JFK’s inaugural address, we are told, “sums up the magic that was — or is — Camelot.” He does say one thing that rings true, though: “The Kennedy era is now more a symbol than a reality .”

In James Swanson’s new book “End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy,” the author seeks to introduce a new symbology: the apocalypse. But the Book of Revelations is no more applicable than the Camelot analogy. By Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1963, most Americans had returned to their work and their lives. 

But the press and the tabloids can’t get enough of the Camelot image. They invoke it every day. Perhaps it’s time to point out that the original Camelot is a myth itself, and a pretty murky one at that. It’s based on the legend of King Arthur, a late 5th/early 6th century British king who supposedly maintained his Round Table at a castle named Camelot. But apart from folklore and literary romances, there is no evidence that such a figure or place ever existed.

In any event, the central narrative that has come down to us is a story of adulterous betrayal. Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, fooled around with one of King Arthur’s top knights, Lancelot. It’s very doubtful if Jackie Kennedy had a tale of adultery in mind when she invoked the image of Camelot. No, she had the last lines of the song from the Broadway musical. But even that musical’s main plot line is the adultery story. In real life, Jack Kennedy’s Arthur was the adulterer (of a serial sort), and the Queen, Jacqueline/Guinevere, was the one betrayed.

Instead of quoting Jackie Kennedy on Camelot in his Life article, Teddy White would have done the nation a favor if he had followed his reporter’s instincts and left out this bit of a widow’s grieving myth-making. But like most reporters then and now, he was in thrall to the Kennedy mystique, so in thrall, in fact, that he violated journalistic ethics by letting Mrs. Kennedy have editorial say-so over the article. The editors at Life balked at the imagery, but she prevailed. That’s the principal reason why we continue to find many references to “American royalty,” to the “Kennedyseat” in Massachusetts, and the Kennedys as exemplars of an American aristocracy. 

It’s strange, this sentimental desire in a democratic republic for royalty, kings, queens, knights and hereditary investitures of political power.

Old Kennedy hands knew the Camelot analogy was all malarkey. Jack Kennedy hated musicals, though his 19-year-old sexual playmate, Wheaton College co-ed Mimi Beardsley, said he liked one of the tunes from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Perhaps it was “A Secretary is Not a Toy.”

The real Jack Kennedy was an interesting, smart, charismatic, brave, funny, handsome and reckless rich boy who became a skillful politician who was gunned down in the prime of his life. His story is inherently interesting and compelling, and it does not need the phony trappings of a fictional Arthurian legend borrowed from a Broadway musical to keep his memory green. 

Graham is the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author or editor of numerous books and articles on Texas culture and is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly.