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John F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Contradictory Legacy of Camelot

JFK, Jr. represented many things. He was handsome. He was the son — and namesake — of one of America’s most famous and beloved Presidents. He was the little boy who saluted his slain father’s casket in that memorable picture.

JFK Jr.’s popularity, like the late Princess Diana’s, stems from an enduring American romanticism. Americans, even in today’s cynical and unprincipled age, long for idealism. They yearn for inner and outer beauty. They want to believe that the good exists, and that the good ultimately matters in life.

In an era of Jerry Springer’s talk show guests; O.J. Simpson’s getting away with murder; and Bill Clinton’s web of fraud and deceit, Americans still cry out for a grander and more romantic vision of how life might and ought to be. Hence, the outpouring of public grief for JFK, Jr., as for Princess Diana before him.

It says a lot for American society — and for the human spirit in general — that it can withstand the likes of Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson and the pitiful specimens of human nature we see around us, and still persist in the belief that virtue, beauty, and heroism are possible.

But young Kennedy represented more than beauty and romanticism, important as these values are. He was more than an individual that many Americans watched grow up on television; he was more than American royalty.

JFK, Jr. was also the perceived heir to a philosophical tradition. He was heir to the “Kennedy Legacy” — a philosophical legacy, regrettably, which stands in complete opposition to the fundamental ideals of freedom and independence which made (and still make) this nation’s existence possible.

JFK, Jr., is associated with his father, the President. Most people know something about his father, while knowing considerably less about the son. JFK Senior is the man who once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s notion of selflessness, of self-sacrifice for the group or the collective, is what most people still think of as the political and ethical ideal. Liberal or conservative, they believe that ideal has vanished. And they want it back. They hoped a Kennedy-like figure might emerge and somehow take us back, to rescue us from freedom and personal responsibility, which are the opposites of self-sacrifice and collectivism.

Self-sacrifice as virtue is not a liberal-conservative kind of debate, even in today’s contentious times. Everybody from Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson to Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson all agree that sacrifice of the individual to the collective represents the essence of virtue. They only differ on the degree of sacrifice to be imposed, and to which collective (e.g. religious, racial or secular) certain individuals will be sacrificed.

The loss of the elusive “Kennedy Legacy” — a sense of loss churned up in the dramatic psychological context of JFK Jr.’s sudden death — is being grieved as much as anything else. Why? Because the legacy of sacrifice — of asking “what you can do for your country,” instead of for yourself — died, it is feared, along with JFK, Sr. when he was assassinated in 1963. Now the equally sudden death of his son heightens that sense of loss, particularly among media professionals and intellectuals who seem to long for a “benevolent” dictator to take charge of us all.

What the chattering media mourners evade is the fact that the real Kennedy legacy lives on today, stronger than ever. It produced, for starters, the Vietnam War — a war based on the premise that young men must sacrifice for their country, not necessarily to fight Communism (which, after all, is an ideology based upon self-sacrifice to the commune or group); but rather because their country commanded and required it. If anything in American history represented the Kennedyesque idea of self-sacrifice for its own sake, the Vietnam War was it. The philosophical, as well as military, foundations for that war were laid (in part) by Kennedy’s brief administration.

The Kennedy era also gave rise to The War on Poverty. The War on Poverty initiated a four-decade spree of crime and social breakdown, particularly among the urban poor it was supposed to “help.” It was bankrolled, and is still bankrolled today, by the most productive members of society who pay the most taxes to support it. The politicians who initiated it — particularly the sanctimonious Kennedy-Johnson era liberals — are, even today, largely held blameless for the injustice, irresponsibility, and misery the War on Poverty actually produced.

JFK-era selflessness also laid the foundation for ever-more dramatic government controls, including government medicine and government regulation of private enterprise. In general, the American tradition of “laissez-faire” and individual rights (both in business and the bedroom) suffered gravely in the twentieth century, and JFK’s influential advocacy of Big Government selflessness bears a good portion of the responsibility.

Like it or not, the notion that we should give up our individuality for the sake of country in actual practice means giving up our individual rights for the sake of ugly, power-hungry, Big Government politicians like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Ted Kennedy. The spirit of JFK selflessness led, in harsh reality, to the control-freak politicians (left and right) we increasingly see around us today. As a case in point, a single day before his nephew’s plane plunged into the Atlantic waters, Senator Ted Kennedy vowed that the fight for complete government control of medicine would never stop.

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as we know, gave us the Vietnam War — where tens of thousands of lives were sacrificed despite the fact we were in no immediate danger, and even though most of those men would never have fought without the coercion of the military draft. Yet, we must ask, wasn’t Johnson merely trying to force Americans to give to their country, rather than to live for themselves? Wasn’t he doing what JFK asked us to do?

Richard Nixon — not usually grouped with the likes of JFK and LBJ, admittedly — tried to supply a guaranteed income to every family in America, about as socialist a scheme as any liberal Democrat has ever imagined. Why was it rejected by Americans, so decisively that most forgot about it? Wasn’t Nixon merely trying to force Americans to give to their country instead of to themselves?

Jimmy Carter said we must, as a nation, always turn the other cheek and be humble. He meant what he said, and in the process nearly drove the country’s military and economy into the ground. He told Americans they were “malaised” and miserable because they did not like waiting in line for gasoline and refused to turn down their thermostats. Carter was resoundingly defeated and thrown out of office for his thankless efforts to put into practice his puritanical, self-righteous initiatives. Yet wasn’t Jimmy Carter merely asking us to give to our country instead of take care of ourselves?

Bill Clinton — never known for humility or shyness — attempted a complete government takeover of health care in 1994. Though otherwise a remarkably popular president, he lost his party’s control of Congress for attempting to socialize medicine entirely. Clinton Care will likely stand out as the supreme policy failure of his two terms in office, and one of the great political miscalculations of American history. Yet wasn’t Clinton merely trying to be like JFK, his hero, in telling doctors and patients to put supposed national health interests ahead of selfish, personal freedom of choice? Wasn’t Clinton, like Kennedy, merely telling us to give to our country instead of to ourselves?

Why is JFK considered idealistic, when he preaches the virtue of sacrifice — but then each of his successors are shot down, once they seek to translate such sacrificial visions into national policy? Why is sacrifice good when Kennedy advocates it from his podium — and bad when it is turned into law? Americans rebel against being controlled, while yearning for a philosophy of ethics and government (i.e. JFK’s) which can lead to nothing but control.

To paraphrase novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, Americans must check their premises. Contradictions do not exist in reality; only in people’s minds and emotions. Either JFK’s philosophy of selflessness does represent idealism, or it doesn’t.

If it does, then we should have more Vietnams. We should draft young men and women and send them to Bosnia, Somalia, and any country in need of help immediately. We should pass the Nixon-Clinton-LBJ welfare schemes and many, many more like them. We should turn the other cheek to all our enemies — the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans, and the Iraqis, in the great Jimmy Carter tradition. We should not be scandalized when we learn the Chinese government stole our nuclear secrets and built missiles to aim at our cities — in fact, we should give them the missiles!

Clearly, most Americans would never stand for such outrageous policies. Nor should we. But we must face the fact that such policies would be entirely consistent with the idea of self-sacrifice as virtue, rather than the life-destroying vice it truly is.

JFK Jr.’s death is an obvious tragedy for himself and his loved ones. It’s always a blow for humanity to lose a public figure of such grace, beauty, and charm. He’s to be admired for the fact that he chose to make it on his own, in the magazine business, rather than rush into the largely parasitical field of politics. Crowned a prince by the media, when he never asked to be one, must have been hell at times. But, like his mother, he seemed to cope with dignity and style. He resolved to earn his way in life. This is a legacy his family and loved ones can truly be proud of.

But the intense reaction to JFK Jr.’s death represents something more complex on the social-philosophical level. As a society, America is still caught in the same contradiction it has been for many decades now. We want to be a free country. A country of individualists. A country of heroes. This sort of romantic spirit is part of how many people hold the Kennedy legacy in their minds. It’s a wonderful spirit, to be sure. It is the benevolent part of “Camelot” which we are right to cherish.

Yet too many seek to impose the dark side of Kennedyism — self-sacrifice — on the populace. We want the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Social Security. Medicare. “Compassionate capitalism.” Inevitably, this means more government controls. This means the sacrifice of the able to the non-able. It means fascist-like economics, slimy backroom deals and political corruption. It means Clinton health care plans. In extreme cases, it means outright sacrifice of the good to the evil. For proof, look at today’s political and cultural mess from which JFK, Jr., was supposed (in the minds of many) to have rescued us.

Too many of us want to keep on pretending that the ancient ethical code of self-sacrifice, rather than an ethics of independence, competence, and self-reliance, somehow represents the ideal; this, despite the fact we hate the practical results of altruistic projects like Vietnam, the War on Poverty and Communism. JFK, Jr., in his beauty and grace, was a way for people (particularly intellectuals and journalists) to keep on deluding themselves that socialism and collectivism somehow might work, with the “right man” at the helm. Who was better suited to fulfill this mystical purpose than JFK, Jr.?

The true Kennedy legacy, sadly, is the stubborn endurance of this tragic and largely unnamed American contradiction. The tragic and sudden death of JFK, Jr. may reinforce the contradiction, to the harm of the country he left behind. The hard truth is that a neosocialistic or neofascist state based upon living for the sake of the group, rather than for your own individual sake, is not right, and could not have worked — with or without JFK, Jr. to carry on the torch.

We still refuse to recognize that ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country “idealism,” in theory, inevitably leads to the controlling, neofascist follies of LBJ, Nixon, Clinton, and so many others yet to follow, in practice. Bad policies and bad Presidents stem from bad theories; even if you feel the theories are right.

JFK, Jr., even if he had lived, run for office and won, could never have rescued us from this contradiction, as many seem to think. Nobody will rescue us from this contradiction, except for ourselves — by checking our premises and correcting them.

Tragic as the younger Kennedy’s death is for himself and his loved ones, we never needed him to rescue us. To his credit, he probably did not want to do so. He just wanted to live a happy, fulfilling life. Maybe he sensed something too many of us don’t want to face. We truly can take care of ourselves.

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