Everyone then alive remembers where they were – what they were doing – when US President John Kennedy was murdered.
It was a terrifying political and social turning point, not only for the American nation but for countless ordinary citizens like financial journalist, Peter McKenna who claims that the previous year a burning ardour for study had been suddenly ignited within him by a chance reading of one of Kennedy’s eloquent speeches, thus sparking a latent gift for language that led to his career as a writer.
Now McKenna has ‘repaid the debt’ by publishing the first of two planned books about the Kennedy family’s influence on US society, “focussing on the economic, political, and social changes” that the assassination provoked.
The publication of All His Bright Light Gone - The Death of John F. Kennedy and The Decline of America** could not be better-timed: for the election pending on Tuesday November 08; John Kennedy’s centenary in May 2017 and – disturbingly – because earlier this week Moscow spokesmen issued warnings of a new Cold War, a phrase first coined in the late 1940s by political adviser Bernard Baruch and newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. The phenomenon was to reach its full strength during Kennedy’s administration.
But of equal interest and import is Kennedy’s unceasing battle against life-threatening illness. It is most bitterly ironic that he beat the odds to survive as a war hero and fought from early childhood against the ravages of Addison Disease. This is a difficult-to-diagnose adrenal gland disorder that used to kill off its victims young before the development of drugs like desoxycorticosterone acetate (DOCA) and cortisone. Intriguingly, the treatment, coupled with an inordinate emotional immaturity, has been partly attributed to Kennedy’s ridiculously high libido.
As an Anglo-Israeli I am fascinated by Kennedy’s relationship with 1960s Israel and wonder why McKenna does not mention it. After all, the president’s concern about the nuclear reactor in Dimona is well documented and reading McKenna’s many references to America’s Founding Fathers made me wonder whether in earlier days, American leaders may have loved doughty Israeli pioneers like prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir simply because they reminded them somehow of Washington, Franklin, et al.
But McKenna does mention the United Nations and there will be many reading his book who will snort derisively when they learn that Kennedy warned from the start that it was a body “doomed to become ineffective, unable to fulfil its mandate of preventing future wars. ‘Its powers will be limited,’ he wrote as a Hearst Newspapers correspondent at its launch in San Francisco during April 1945 and ‘… it will reflect the fact that there are deep disagreements among its members.”
As I write, Americans are less than two weeks away from electing their next president after what has been, by all accounts, the the most ill-tempered, bruising campaign in their history.
Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first candidates to appear in four live television pre-election presidential debates in which they tackled difficult topics like ‘big government’ and civic responsibility. This year’s candidates, neither of them in the least bit physically pretty, have instead dished the dirt about sexual assault and blatant chicanery.
All of this seems a far cry from McKenna’s often idealised, even star-struck portrait of Kennedy and who notes that it is “astonishing how far the country has drifted from the form of government the Founders gave us and that Kennedy championed.”
McKenna’s book is intensely researched but somewhat lopsided, giving surprisingly little space to any impact Kennedy’s domestic life may have had on his presidency while overdosing on meandering descriptions of episodes in the War of Independence and superfluous quotations from Scots philosopher Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. However, it will be a useful addition to the libraries of all serious students of the Kennedy years.
© Natalie Wood (28 October 2016)