Magazine article History Today

The Passing of a Dynasty: The Careers of the Three Kennedy Brothers Defined the Politics of America in the 1960s, a Decade That Began amid Vigour and Optimism and Ended in Scandal and Cynicism. Yet Still They Fascinate

Magazine article History Today

The Passing of a Dynasty: The Careers of the Three Kennedy Brothers Defined the Politics of America in the 1960s, a Decade That Began amid Vigour and Optimism and Ended in Scandal and Cynicism. Yet Still They Fascinate

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The death earlier this year of Edward Moore Kennedy prompted many pundits and historians to revisit and reevaluate the Kennedy phenomenon. How has a family with such a chequered public reputation managed to dominate the American imagination? This folk memory of the Kennedys is not just rooted in nostalgia. In a more profound way, the careers of the three brothers framed the story of America in the 1960s. The presidency of John F. 'Jack' Kennedy was a bridge between an age of consensus and an age of revolution, between the 1950s and the 1960s. Robert's frantic, passionate struggle for the White House reflected an era of rebellion in full swing. Ted's tawdry fall from grace marked the end of the 1960s, the beginning of an age of limited government and political cynicism in which we live today.

When he was inaugurated president in 1961, the 43-year old Jack Kennedy proclaimed that the 'torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans'. With his energetic style, beautiful wife and team of young technocrats (including his brother Robert, who served as attorney general), Jack created a White House that Arthur Schlesinger called a latterday 'Camelot'.

In truth, Camelot was a myth. Jack was a serial adulterer and so physically feeble that he required crutches to walk. Moreover, most of his plans for health care, education, civil rights and tax reform were voted down by Congress. It wasn't until his successor President Lyndon Johnson was able to use Jack's tragic death to emotionally blackmail legislators that America finally began to build a Great Society.

But substance was as important in defining the early 1960s as style. Jack's activism heralded a new era of confidence in the 'American Way,' His commitment to defend South Vietnam against communist aggression reflected a belief that any problem could be solved with the application of grit, money and expertise.

Signs of the times

Robert, who became head of the family following Jack's assassination in November 1963, was a different man for a different time. He acknowledged that while America became materially richer in the mid-1960s, it also became spiritually poorer. Issues that Jack approached as surmountable challenges--like civil rights for African-Americans--now looked like intractable problems. Once noble causes, such as beating the Viet Cong, now posed moral dilemmas.

Setting himself up for a future presidential run, Robert won a senate seat in New York in 1964. Exposed to the problems of racism and poverty among his constituents, Robert concluded that the so called War on Poverty at home was being undermined by the war on communism overseas. Jack's 'Great Adventure' in Vietnam had turned into an expensive nightmare. Robert urged America to set its own house in order before it tried to export democracy.

Robert's radical, anti-war presidential campaign of 1968 showed just how much America had changed since the innocent days of 1960. Wherever he went, Robert was met by hordes of deliriously excited blacks, Hispanics and white students. They grasped at him so hard that his hands bled. When he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in June 1968, it came as a climax to months of rioting and the assassination in April of the secular saint Martin Luther King Jr. America was exhausted. Between 1963 and 1968 it spent over $4 billion on aid to cities and schools, yet militant black leaders still demanded more and poverty endured. America sacrificed over 36,000 men in Vietnam, yet the war continued with no end in sight. This was the price for Jack's hubris. Crime, divorce, sexual experimentation, drugs, rock'n'roll and graft were on the up. …

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