Christine Jardine MP writes: Reflections on “Camelot” 60 years on

It was Jackie Kennedy who first likened her husband’s presidency to Camelot, the mythical court of King Arthur, in an interview with Life magazine in 1963.

The musical of the same name was apparently the President’s favourite.

On the sixtieth anniversary of his death little of the inspirational quality she evoked seems to have been lost.

If anything the passing of time has enhanced his image and invested his three short years in the White House with a significance that has prompted generations to search for their own Kennedy.

But why is it that those of us who know him only from grainy black and white news footage, or endless biographical books and movies, are so enthralled by a Presidency which promised much but was denied fulfilment?

Of course there is an element of ‘what if’ about Kennedy.

The feeling that a generation was robbed of a leader who would have lived up to his inauguration’s pledge to:

Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.

The glamour of his young administration was a stark contrast to the immediate post war years and seemed to herald a new beginning.

He was after all the youngest to be elected, and the first Roman Catholic President.

A war hero who brought his children to play in the Oval Office and whose wife gave the role of First Lady a new elan.

And whose death was etched deep in American consciousness not just by those horrifying final pictures in Dallas but by the heartbreaking image of a three year old JFK Junior saluting his father’s coffin.

But that is only part of Kennedy’s story.

While he introduced more bills in his first hundred days than any president had since Roosevelt they were stuck in a log jam created by a Congress that wasn’t won over by his infamous charm.

It was only following his death that the more experienced Lyndon Johnson was able to use the emotion of the moment, negotiate their passage and deliver the 1964 Civil Rights Act which was, perhaps, Kennedy’s greatest legacy.

He also took the world to the brink of nuclear war with Russia in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion was an embarrassment.

And yet all of that, even the rumours about affairs and questionable activities by his administration have never dented his image.

Every US president since his death has been compared to him and all save Obama and for a time Clinton, have failed to fire the imagination of liberals in the way that Kennedy did.

It is difficult now to separate the reality of Kennedy from the myth, or to see him clearly through the smokescreen thrown up by endless books, documentaries and Hollywood movies.

And while they have not all been complimentary, none has denied the indefinable quality which he possessed and which makes the world long to see his like again.

Perhaps Jackie Kennedy was right. Maybe his presidency was defined by the lines from the Camelot musical with which he was apparently enthralled:

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot. “

* Christine Jardine is MP for Edinburgh West and spokesperson for Women & Equalities, Scotland and the Cabinet Office, which includes political and constitutional reform.

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