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Image and the legacy of Camelot

29 November 2013

PERHAPS the most obvious and lasting effect of J. F. Kennedy's presidency has been a preoccupation with the image of our political leaders. In today's media-driven world, the image outlasts everything - as we saw last week.

The anniversary of his death was dominated by his tanned, handsome face, looking out towards a golden future that never came. But with such a focus has come the suspicion that the image might deceive. In fact, JFK's gilded image was deeply misleading.

It is now widely known that he suffered from Addison's disease, and that for most of his political life he was racked with pain from a back problem. He never complained, surviving on strong pain-killers. His tanned appearance was partly because of Addison's. An old Stanford friend suggested that he was ashamed of his illnesses, seeing them as something effeminate and weak.

There were other issues, too. A documentary for CBS, transmitted in 1993, included an interview with an anonymous mistress who said: "I never did experience John Kennedy in a mood of reflection, pain, or sadness." This is an extraordinary thing to say about anyone, particularly a lover.

Kennedy seems to have had no kind of inner life. He was his image. He had magnetic charm, and seems to have exercised an almost magical power over women and men alike. But the likelihood is that he needed them as much as they needed him.

The evidence of this is that those in his inner circle felt strangely incapable of challenging him. They could only live in and reflect his light. Kennedy invented himself as a charismatic, almost invulnerable, leader. His death still baffles us. He was not like ordinary mortals.

Bringing this down to earth, it is perhaps significant that no president since him (apart from his immediate successor, Lyndon B. Johnson) has lacked a fine head of hair. In Britain, baldness was cited as a reason why William Hague could never be Prime Minister. Throughout the world, leaders have tried to emulate his tanned, healthy look. Think of Vladimir Putin, bare-chested and muscular.

It is also tempting for all political leaders these days to hide any capacity that they might have for "reflection, pain, or sadness". They are driven to cultivate an image of perfection rather than to own our common and flawed humanity. We tend to elevate them like gods, only to tear them down when they inevitably fail. There was a dark side to Camelot, which still casts its shadow.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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