Reflections on JFK By Richard Sale

The day of national grief, marking the murder of President John Kennedy turned out to be a day of bathetic sentimentality, a day of homage to what really did not exist.

President Kennedy’s assassination was a horrible event.  To have his wife and the nation having to watch a young President have his brains blown out of his head in front of the eyes of the world, ending a great perhaps, was something ineradicable to those who witnessed it.

That kind of heartless murder is an event every decent human being has to mourn and reflect on.  “Each day is yours to live – just as it comes – the rest is luck,” says Euripides. So it was.

But the facts of John F. Kennedy’s career have to be kept in mind.  John Kennedy was a brilliant young man. He had a photographic memory, he could write well, and he could immediately understand the heart of a matter at issue as if coring an apple.  His handling of the Cuban missile crisis showed a tenacious nerve, a colossal focus, a mind fertile in gradations and expedients and quickness of wit.  His conduct has rightly been praised to the roof.

Along with his intellectual abilities was the young Kennedy’s singular character.  John had magnetic vitality, (awkwardly called “charisma,”) an ability to inspire personal fascination to an extraordinary degree. He used this power on the men he knew him, spurring them to try equal or surpass him, and this same charm, vitality and attractiveness drew young women to him the way a piece of dropped candy draws ants. It is a truism that we all look for pleasure in life; what is telling is whether we look for it in the right or the wrong way.

John was sick all of his life, and what deserving of  the highest praise was his exertions in the face of terrible pain  No man or woman was more courageous in making efforts in the face of pain than John Kennedy.  That should never be forgotten.

But the founder of the Kennedy family, Joe Kennedy, was basically a renegade. His soul was full of inner rot. The Greeks held that education aimed at fulfilling the idea of a man as he ought to be. In Homer, the really noble man is known by his sense of duty and decency, his concern for personal honor. His preeminence could only be guaranteed by the noble and honest virtues that won it. But in Homer, there was a dark side to this code.  The Greek nobles believed that manly virtue was victory in battle – the hero’s whole life was the race for first prize, an unceasing strife for supremacy over his peers.

That last defines Joe Kennedy. Throughout his life, he was a relentless social climber and a political schemer. He was an entirely corrupt businessman who used his corruption to further the life of his children as a matter of pride and as a way of validating his own egoistic ambition. What other end in life was there but power over others? Success meant glory, riches, a name, influence, gaining the highest places, a desire for the family name to appear in bold, proud letters throughout the land.

Proven evidence has shown that the Kennedy family was not an morally sound family in any sense – it was not a highly cultured family, not a highly educated family, not a family with broad or perceptive human views of life. Life to them was an unprincipled struggle to the grab power. They were a ruthless profiteering family using any and all means to obtain their ends which were often vulgar and commonplace.

What were the goods of life for them? Riches, mansions, big hotels, large estates, boats, luxury cars, a life for the children of maids and nannies, and, most of all, attractive and readily available young women. And how were such advantages to be gotten? By vice, by the most blatant kind of corruption. You bought people the way you purchased groceries, and when a man refused to be bought, you bought the man above him.

In other words, the Kennedy family was a completely unprincipled family. The men ran it, treated all people as a means to an end. The married women mainly provided respectability. Young attractive women were to be had at the convenience of the men. Most ordinary human beings are in most cases driven by greed for, political office, notice, praise influence, popularity. They want power in order to be conspicuous, to be able to lord it over those who are less in size and significance. They want power in order to be invulnerable, but do not want to suffer the effects of their vices. They lacked any instinct that burns with the desire to build something that lasts.  They were ruled by the moment, its desires, and aims, its cheap, easy and sleazy gratifications

But a big role in the world for Kennedy Sr. was to be had only by the worst and lowest of means.  He made his fortune by bootlegging, and this meant corrupting his associates along the way, using them as enablers of his shady rackets.

The Kennedy family consistently displayed a persecution complex.  Like the state of Israel, anything hostile, any obstacle to their ambition, they saw as threatening their very existence. The family felt itself cast adrift from the bulk of the American people because of its religion: we were a Protestant country. Groups of people stood above them, and thus the family was left out. Yet the criminality of the father also acted to estrange the family from the mainstream, which made it redouble its efforts to be normal and mainstream while surrendering none of its graft.

From an early age, John Kennedy was spoiled and corrupt, and he floated on the current of his father’s ties to organized crime. There is established evidence of the exchange of monies between Sam Giancana and the older Kennedy.  Giancana was a murderer who ran the Chicago mob that ran the labor unions there. Those ties helped John to obtain a seat in Congress, and then helped him win the Presidency. In the West Virginia primary, John won because his father knew that the sheriffs in the state control the political structure, and they were paid off in hefty bribes. In Illinois, another key state, it was the mob that brought in the victory. These facts are not in dispute. (Read The Dark Side of Camelot by Sy Hersh who spent five years writing it.)

The idea of Camelot of an ideal marriage was a dismal misrepresentation of the genuine Kennedy marriage.  Everything the Kennedy family did was done by planning ahead, spurred by shrewd political calculation, and those calculations were in many cases, heartless. Only after the baby died, did Jack and Jackie begin to act like true mates.

Throughout his life, Jack’s womanizing never flagged. Jack’s affair with Marilyn Monroe began in the 1950s. John was very cavalier to Marylyn. After a sexual encounter with Marilyn at Palm Springs,  he said to her something like, "You're not really First Lady material, anyway, Marilyn,” according to then Florida Senator George Smathers, a good friend.

Jackie knew of his affairs and it made her suffer horribly. But being unfaithful was a habit he had inherited from his father. Heraclitus says it is harder to resist pleasure than wrath, and virtue, like art, is always concerned with what is harder, for good actions are made better by being hard to achieve, he said.  Vice negates and undoes this.  So it was with John. He mirrored his father who ignored the fact that human beings are put on earth to serve the causes of moral intelligence.

The lovers of Jack Kennedy complained that Jack never indulged in foreplay, on one occasion he told a young lady, “I’m sorry but I only have fifteen minutes.”  He indulged in no foreplay with Jackie.  Jackie was constantly humiliated by his infidelities. She used to introduce his young women aides in the White House by saying, “This is Patricia. She is sleeping with my husband.”

To me the real tragedy of the Kennedy’s aside from Jack’s murder, is that they lacked any instinct that burns with the desire to build something excellent that lasts.  They were ruled by the moment, its desires, aims, its gratifications.  For all their striving, they remained commonplace.

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18 Responses to Reflections on JFK By Richard Sale

  1. Interesting piece that captures some of the complexity of JFK his life and gifts and burdens! But the what if of history for me is the potential of his older brother Joe lost over the Channel or France in WWII? How much of a driver was that older brother for JFK and his loss?

  2. Ramojus says:

    Not to be a boor, but I’ve always wondered about JFK’s sexual encounters. Given his physical health issues (Addison’s disease, bad back etc.) and an unwillingness to engage in foreplay; what kind of sexual activity did he engage in? I mean was he on his back while the woman did all the work?
    Or was his sexual prowess exaggerated by the Boomer “Playboy philosophy” ethos of the times?

  3. turcopolier says:

    Doing all the work? They were just doing their patriotic duty. pl

  4. Mark Logan says:

    Mr. Sale,
    I’ve read a bit about Joe’s brilliant timing in the stock markets of his day. It seems clear he had some associations with bootleggers, but those came largely after he had played Wall Street as if it was his own personal fiddle. He utterly nailed the peaks and valleys. I didn’t want to start an argument, but thought thinking him simply a crime boss misses a lot.
    I think Joe was one of those guys whose incredible gift in one area, finance (gambling?), caused him to conclude he was gifted in general. Case in point, his bad assessment of Hitler and his recklessness about publicly proclaiming it. Nevertheless, he continued to believe both he and his had to be “special”.

  5. Bobo says:

    Mr. Sale I have always enjoyed your writings in the past.
    My departed Irish Mother, whose father was a bootlegger also from an uncultured, uneducated though moral family, would always tell me if you cannot say anything nice about someone then do not say it. I assume this also applies to writers. Sounds like you were under the bed.

  6. Joe100 says:

    WRC –
    My father knew both Joe and John Kennedy at college, thought quite highly of Joe and felt he had great potential. My recollection is that he did not have a positive opinion of John and turned down an offer by JFK to join his senatorial staff.

  7. Harper says:

    JFK overcame the “sins of the father” in many respects that are so long forgotten today that we have come to accept a level of political mediocrity in our presidents that is our own cultural sin. I can cite the known instances where he did indeed leave a lasting legacy, from the Apollo program, to a network of major dams and other infrastructure projects that survive as further landmarks to his achievements. Kennedy took on the steel barons and did many other things that transformed the potential of the American economy. Many of these prospective breakthroughs in the conditions of life for a vast majority of our fellow citizens were lost following his murder and the plunge into Indochina.

  8. Thanks Joe 100 and I have some confirmatory opinions on that subject from a number of others. Senator Smathers of Florida and JFK partied hard until about 1958!
    When I grew up in Arlington many underage teens drank beer in Georgetown. The legal drinking age was 18 in DC!
    Since I went a number of times to see Senate debates with a friend later a CIA Station Chief I recognized both Senators. Georgetown was their very conspicuous playground. Often with very willing young women! A troubling lack of discretion.

  9. The beaver says:

    Just have to read the snippets published in the media when the book of Mimi Alford came out two yrs ago to realise what was happening during that period.
    She was the 19 y.o intern during JFK administration.

  10. oofda says:

    Joe’s plane never even made it out of Britian, blowing up before it reached the Channel. It was a flying bomb, where he and his co-pilot were to bail out over Europe and the plane would be radio-controlled to its target. Tragically, the boffins hadn’t worked out all the radio issues and an outside radio transmission triggered the explosion.
    And father Joe, as U.S. Ambassador to the UK, harbored pro-Nazi sympathies, another mark against his character.

  11. CK says:

    And it was said: “You bought people the way you purchased groceries, and when a man refused to be bought, you bought the man above him.” Admirable when done by a government; admirable when done to a government.
    Reference AIPAC.

  12. Kyle Pearson says:

    So this justifies his murder?
    And i reckon, all this lays to rest the questions about who actually killed him?
    I am a big fan of James Galbraith. He’s a solid, respectable academic, and has had some very interesting things to say about the Warner Commission.

  13. turcopolier says:

    “So this justifies his murder?” Only you have said or thought that. sale said nothing like that. pl

  14. optimax says:

    The evidence that Joseph Kennedy was a bootlegger is thin at best. The hardest evidence are the words of two Mafia bosses who held grudges against the Kennedy’s for RFK’s relentless prosecution of organized crime. I have a hard time taking the word of criminals. Joe Kennedy had a license to import medicinal alcohol into the US during Prohibition and was the US distributor of Gordon’s Gin and Dewars after its repeal. He was ambassador to England and the first chairman of the SEC. These licenses and high level appointments meant he had to pass numerous high level FBI security checks … meaning they found no evidence of past criminal activity.
    On top of the accomplishments Harper mentioned, JFK created the Peace Corp and signed the atmospheric nuclear test ban treat with the USSR. Not bad for such a short term. IMHO. his speeches are better than Reagan’s.

  15. ked says:

    Throughout history, I’ve noted some significant imperfections in the family character as well as personal character of many who’ve done great good, some good, some bad & great bad. I have not always been able to correlate goodness (or badness) of family with goodness of a family-member’s impact on their broader culture in their immediate or long-term. It has never been clear to me how one can predict outcomes (or even establish value) through contrasting a person’s family & private life with their role in the political-historical dimension, or even for the attainment of humanity’s moral intelligence.
    Peel back any onion & one may find the Kennedy dynasty to be within the sweep (bell curve?) of not-unusual behavior of many families, once one considers the factors of the times, scale & scrutinizes all in equivalent detail.

  16. Stephanie says:

    My reading suggests that the death of Joe Jr., however sad, was no great loss to the republic. Younger brother Jack was cleverer, better read, less rigid in character and politics. JFK had no particular political ambitions as a young man; that was a joint project between his elder brother and his father. That changed with his brother’s death. As JFK put it amusingly to one of his old Navy pals: “When the war is over and you are out there in sunny California, I’ll be back here with Dad trying to parlay a lost PT boat and a bad back into political advantage. I’ll tell you, Dad is ready right now and can’t understand why Johnny boy isn’t ‘all engines full ahead.’” Wonderful letter writer, very witty man on the page and in person. RIP, Mr. President.

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