Barry’s Blog # 73: John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession with Innocence, Part One of Four

If anyone’s going to kill me, it should happen now. – John F. Kennedy, 1962

Assassinations, murder – and war, to – begin this way. This revolution is not just outside us in the streets and jails and detention homes and clinics, or in Texas, but is the Shadow in each of us that is trying to come out. – James Hillman, 11/22/1963

Part One: Myths

At book talks I used to ask: When did you lose your innocence? Common answers include 9/11/2001 and the various political assassinations of the 1960s. Then I would ask: When did you lose it again?

The trick question was meant to provoke people into thinking about a uniquely American situation. Myths are stories we tell ourselves about significant people, real or imagined. But these stories are ultimately and always about ourselves. They are narratives we create, are drawn to or selectively remember, so as to view our own values and obsessions projected outside of ourselves.

The idea of innocence lies at the foundation of our national identity. It is as fundamental to our sense of who think we are as alcohol is to an alcoholic. Life for (white) Americans is simply unthinkable without the assumption that they are pure and blameless in terms of racial and foreign policy matters, and the parallel assumption that our anxieties are always caused by some evil Other.

For this reason, whenever the terrible complexity of human existence pulls us out of denial and causes us to lose our innocence, we very quickly back away from the precipice, revive that innocence and re-constitute it. The cracks that appear in our national veneer of innocence scab over quickly, sealing in the microbes – or the truths – that will inevitably rise to the surface as new infections. Then we lose our innocence again. And each time we do, the experience of disillusionment is so overwhelming that it feels like the first time, because we never really lost it the previous time.

It was not always this way. In the tribal world, initiation rituals were were intended to be so effective that those who survived them (and many didn’t) were permanently altered, and their communities perceived them as such. Initiates lost their childish innocence and were recognized as adults who possessed a realistic, tragic view of the world, tempered by a clear sense of their own purpose in that world, of the relations with the unseen world and of their importance to their community.

As a mythologist, I have very little interest in the actual person John F. Kennedy, nor in what he accomplished, nor in what he believed. Indeed, the tsunami of Kennedy literature has made it impossible to know much about these things anyway. Like all essentially mythic figures, he and his entire clan (along with those other martyrs, Martin and Malcolm) have become Rorschach projection figures for our imagination. lists some 6,000 books on the Kennedys. Another source lists 40,000. In November 2013 alone, at least 140 new books were released, timed for the 50th anniversary of the assassination. All purport to tell the “truth.” But to a mythologist, one truth merely points to another truth, and sometimes that truth looks like the opposite of the first one.

Nor, in this article, am I interested in the question of who killed him or why – you already have your own opinion – except as how the issue has become part of our modern narrative. What I am interested in is the mythological issues: how we create our myths drive us and how they drive our emotions.

In American historical memory the Kennedy administration offers us three mythic images or narratives, all of them driven by electronic media.

A New Start

John David Ebert explains that

Kennedy was the first president to understand, and effectively use, the new medium (of television) to his own advantage…a whole series of televisual firsts: the first ever televised presidential debates; the first televised weekly press conferences; Jackie’s first televised tour of the White House; and later, with Kennedy’s assassination, we will have the first 24-hour news coverage of a traumatic event; with Ruby’s shooting of Oswald, the first live murder caught on television.

This new image represented youth, romance, vigor, virility, health, enthusiasm, promise and a revival of the nation’s ideals. Kennedy’s warm, loving family was an electronic ideal of the new suburban nuclear family, and it mirrored the American public as it wanted to see itself at the time. Furthermore, it

…activated a mythological consciousness in the American psyche in which Kennedy appeared like an Arthurian knight questing for the grail in a Wasteland filled with decrepit old men and scheming villains…On television, the public could see that Kennedy, just past the age of forty, was young enough to appear capable of slaying the dragons of communism and banishing the old men back to their caverns. It is thus no accident that the youngest president ever to be voted into office coincided with the first presidential candidate to become familiar to his voters via television.

Television in 1960 was a form of low resolution technology that produced fuzzy, distorted, hazy images. As Marshal McLuhan pointed out, TV is therefore highly participational, since it requires “fill in” by the viewer for the completion of its images. We are talking now about a two-way street, about the relationship between, on the one hand, deliberately created images and on the other, the deep longing on the part of those who view them, always ready to project meaning onto them.

Watching Kennedy’s televised weekly press conferences gave one the feeling of having the President discourse upon international affairs inside one’s house. The impression was created thereby of having a personal, private chat with this new, young, approachable president right inside one’s own living room…With television, (he) forged an American tribal identity based upon a tightly interwoven conception of himself as a chieftain at the head of his electro-serf peasantry. The American public, through the relationship which Kennedy created with them by means of television, felt very close to him, and that any decision he made on their behalf affected them directly. It is possible that no American president since Kennedy has had this sort of a relationship with his public.

His rhetoric of a “New Frontier” evoked the nation of boundless possibilities. The idea of the new start is at the very core of the myth of America. It is, in fact, the very meaning of America. Our mythology, however, tends to ignore the universal and ecological understanding that initiation requires the death of what came before. So does our New Age thinking, which highlights rebirth without acknowledging death.

But the emotional tone that Kennedy aroused went even deeper. In 1960 millions were fed up with both the anxieties and the conformism of the previous decades. As Peter Gabel wrote, JFK represented “an opening-up of desire.”

It was this feeling…that more than any ideology threatened the system of cultural and erotic control that dominated the fifties and that still dominated the governmental elites of the early sixties…Kennedy’s evocative power spoke to people’s longing for some transcendent community and in so doing, it allowed people to make themselves vulnerable enough to experience both hope and, indirectly, the legacy of pain and isolation that had been essentially sealed from public awareness since the end of the New Deal…


The Kennedy myth – at least until the assassination, and possibly until his brother’s death 4 ½ years later – reinforced the characteristically American notion that history moves inexorably toward a state of more freedom, more opportunity, more equality and an American Dream for everyone, including all those poor folks in the Third World who so need to be saved and liberated by American armies. As we’ll see below, however, the myth of Camelot helped negate the belief in progress for millions.


Americans share a superficial aversion to the trappings of European royalty. After all, the Founding Fathers (itself a mythic reference to a kind of royalty) and their generation rejected the notion of inherited authority for their own racially flawed idea of equality. But America was formed in what Joseph Campbell called a “demythologized world” that has long lacked transcendent mythic figures. So precisely because of our egalitarian ideology – and especially since the age of the movies began – we have searched for public figures who can hold our projections of Kings and Queens. As Paul Fussell observed in his book Class, this is the shadow side of a society that claims democratic values and refuses to admit the fact (obvious to poor people) that it is not classless. Usually these ideal figures have been movie stars, singers and athletes, the stock characters of our cult of celebrity.

But actual royals carry an extra attraction. To this day, it is no coincidence that a typical week of PBS television culminating on Sunday evening includes endless adulation of the British royal family and its related aristocracy, including the denizens of Downton Abbey. Every November, however, as a warm-up for Thanksgiving, that adulation shifts to the American royal family.

The Kennedys, unlike their benign but boring predecessor Dwight Eisenhower or the fatuous and hypocritical Bushes who followed them, were glamorous, sophisticated, physically attractive, well educated, articulate and cultured. They seemed to be comfortable around actual movie stars. And they were only too happy to help perpetuate the image of aristocracy. It was easy to imagine JFK as a king of divine right out of a much earlier time. He looked convincing as a leader, writes Rick Shenkman:

…he became Hollywood’s idea of a president. Presidents in the movies don’t look like Eisenhower…they look like John Kennedy. The man and the myth come together in pictures. And the pictures in our head come easily to mind because the pictures are readily available to us. We don’t have to struggle to call up flattering images of Kennedy. The human brain allows us to call them to mind quickly because our brain readily digests information in the form of images.

He was, wrote one writer, “the subject of endless reverie about his capacity to renew the world.” This capacity to stand at the center of the realm and ritually proclaim the annual renewal of the world, the crops (and the psyche) is one of the characteristics of the archetype of the King. It is the very essence of the idea of the “New Start.” The King is the central archetype of the collective unconscious. He represents order, fertility, stability and blessing. He is a focal point for communal desire and selfless service devoted to a higher order of existence.

In 1960 Kennedy perceived this massive longing for meaning, tapped into it and reframed the classic American value of “opportunity,” which had always meant getting rich, or to “con” someone else (see my series on the Con Man), or (to conservative critics of the New Deal) to take advantage of government aid. Shortly after taking office, he established the Peace Corps, and thousands quickly joined up, delighted to be part of a non-militaristic attempt to make a better world. Now (despite the government’s ongoing anti-communism), opportunity implied the chance to participate in something greater, to build a new world without either the violence of empire or the trappings of Christian fundamentalism.

Kennedy, like his predecessors, cut taxes on the rich, denounced Soviet aggression and glorified American freedom. Yet this advent of the archetypal King energy was, in a very subtle way, calling into question some of the basic values of capitalism itself. At a time when the nation hadn’t fully completed its transformation from Protestant frugality to a consumer culture, this (in the eyes of what we now call the Deep State) may have been his greatest transgression. And it’s probably why the public has often ranked him among the top three American Presidents.

A secondary aspect of the archetype of the King is our longing for the return of the King, as exemplified by the Greek stories of Odysseus, the Hebrew expectation of the Messiah (originally mashiah, and rendered in the Septuagint translation as the Greek Khristos) and significantly, King Arthur of Camelot. This is a universal mythic theme, but it has particular meaning for us, because as Michael Meade has pointed out, American myth confuses the King with another archetype, the Warrior, in his immature form, the Hero. The Hero’s primary characteristic is that once he saves the innocent community, he leaves that community. Our Hero-Kings have all moved on, westward, toward the setting sun and the Other World, and we long for the imagined times and places where they once peacefully ruled over us and our service to them gave our lives meaning.

That longing for a savior figure grows along with our dissatisfaction with our sense of the nation. It is so strong that in the age of Trumpus, it allows us to overlook a fascist strongman’s obvious human frailties, at least for a while. Many Trumpus voters are old enough to have voted for Kennedy in 1960, and, curiously, polls tell us that many of them voted for Obama 48 years later.

Where has the King gone? Indeed, where is Camelot? These are the kind of questions that evoke the power of mythic images. In British myth, the original Camelot had no specific location. Thus, writes Arthurian scholar Norris Lacy, “Camelot, located nowhere in particular, can be anywhere.”

Read Part Two Here.

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3 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 73: John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession with Innocence, Part One of Four

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 293: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Two of Seven | madnessatthegates

  2. Pingback: Barry’s Blog #32: The Two Great Myths of the 20th Century | madnessatthegates

  3. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 348: A Mythologist Looks at the 2020 Election, Part Nine | madnessatthegates

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