Friday, February 10, 2012

Did the Black Knight Rule in Camelot?

It  is one of the most legendary periods in American history, one of the most magical and glorious. It is wistfully recalled by major media and political figures and has been idealized on paper and on screen, the Camelot years of the U.S. Presidency, the administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The term itself--Camelot--was first used to describe the period by the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy (later Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) in an interview with Theodore H. White, following the assassination of JFK. It was published in Life Magazine and is worth quoting:
I want to say this one thing. It's been almost an obsession with me. This line from the musical comedy's been almost an obsession with me. At night before going to bed . . . we had an old Victrola. He'd play a couple of records. I'd get out of bed at night and play it for him when it was so cold getting out of bed. It was a song he loved. He loved 'Camelot.' It was the song he loved most at the end . . . 'don't let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot.'
White transcribed the interview and Mrs. Kennedy--in reviewing it--appended to the above quote the phrase "and it will never be that way again."

It is a remarkable moment, her recognition of the historical significance of her husband's Presidency and ability to encapsulate it with such a memorable, idyllic term. The legacy of JFK reaches far, from civil rights, to the stand-off with the Soviets, to the Peace Corps, to his legendary speeches, and to his assassination. But the Camelot reference has become the standard-bearer, the defining idea of the Kennedy myth, moving beyond just JFK himself to cover the Kennedy family and its legacy.

And make no mistake, even the Kennedy panegyrists know it is a myth. For despite the charisma of JFK, despite his list of achievements, it is known and accepted that he was a flawed man. Some of his indiscretions have been documented in the past and there are many rumors swirling in this regard; those involving Marilyn Monroe in particular reflect poorly on Kennedy.

The latest revelations--or claims, for those that question their veracity--come from former White House intern Mimi Alford and her memoir, Once Upon A Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy And Its Aftermath. In this book, Alford details her first sexual encounter with President Kennedy--which also happened to be her very first sexual encounter with anyone--and it reads very much like what today would be regarded as sexual harassment, at the very least. Alford also describes a pool-side scene wherein Kennedy prompts her to perform oral sex on David Powers--Special Assistant to the President and now deceased--while Kennedy watched. As Timothy Noah in the New Republic says, such actions--if true--reflect a "monstrous cruelty," and cannot be easily swept aside nor forgiven.

The glory of the mythical Camelot of Arthurian legend was a product not only of the peace and happiness that abounded during Arthur's rule, but also of the code of chivalry Arthur and his knights followed. Their faith in this regard was the source of that peace and happiness. The tragic end of that Camelot came because of Lancelot's failure to adhere to the code by loving the wife of the King.

The Camelot of the Kennedys is inverted: Jacqueline Kennedy is chaste, but her husband the President is not; he falters, not her. From the mythical standpoint, the end of this Camelot comes through the King's transgressions, not those of his First Knight nor his wife. If this period was an American Camelot, it was so with a caveat: JFK was no King Arthur, he was much more of a Black Knight.

Cheers, all.

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