Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The Senate Document Room in Days of Yore
The varied assessments of the presidency of John F. Kennedy published during the week memorializing the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination left me with a variety of impressions, two of them personal. The first is of my antiquity. Every pundit in America found it necessary to reminisce about where he or she was precisely at the moment the terrible news arrived, and where they were was usually in Mrs. Higgenbotham’s third-grade classroom or some such. I was already a college instructor. However, their infantile perceptions remembered after half a century seemed to offer them a sufficient platform from which to announce confident and sweeping views about the mood of America in 1963 and President Kennedy’s role in creating it.
Though I remember those times vividly, I cannot recall that there was a national mood. In my experience life’s complexity is fairly constant. So I have no field theories to propose. I can offer by way of a second impression only one quite small and specific point. I had to conclude that none of the pundits talking about the Kennedyesque “Camelot” had the slightest idea what or where Camelot is or was—though the more astute among them connected it to a Broadway show. Medievalists rarely appear in prime time, so let me take the opportunity to remind you that Camelot was the legendary place that was the legendary seat of the legendary medieval King Arthur, and that it was somewhere vaguely off in the West—meaning the West of England, of course.
I suppose it is natural that a figure so attractive, indeed charismatic as President Kennedy would attract mythic comparison, but I am not sure that popular journalism has picked up the right myth. The idea that the thousand days of the Kennedy administration created a Camelot on the Potomac is one that I, at least, cannot fully endorse. It is not simply the matter of the inexactitude of the parallels, significant though they be. (For example, in the real Camelot it was the queen, not the king, who was the adulterer.) It is more a question of mythic tone. Broadway musicals are not big on ambiguity. Medieval poets were much better.
Of Arthur at his Christmas feast at Camelot the great author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight writes thus:
Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse….
He watz so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered:
His lif liked hym lyȝt, he louied þe lasse
Auþer to longe lye or to longe sitte,
So bisied him his ȝonge blod and his brayn wylde.
We don’t know for certain what the key adjective childgered means, but it is probably closer to “childish” than “child-like”. The restlessness, I think, has to be borderline pathological: Royal Attention Deficit Order is my guess. Anyway the king’s appetite for action sure gets Gawain in a spot of bother. Young blood and wild brain make for hair-raising adventures, but they are hardly presidential.
I have one personal and trivial Kennedy anecdote that is perhaps worth recording. I spent the summer of 1958 in Washington, working in the Senate Document Room. In the old days (and for all I know, still) each piece of legislation proposed in either of the houses of Congress was printed in a large number of copies at every stage of its discussion and amendment for the consultation of interested legislators and staff members. The Senate Document Room stored these papers and distributed them among the senators on demand. I was a well paid summer clerk in this office. The duties were not taxing, and I had plenty of time to enjoy Washington. What a wonderful way to spend a summer between graduating from college and sailing off to Europe!
Senator J. William Fulbright in 1965
The instigator of this boondoggle was Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas). All the senators had a certain number of patronage jobs at their disposal. Some may have gone to political cronies, but several of the senators sponsored “promising youth”, a category into which I once plausibly fit. Bill Fulbright, one of the genuine American statesmen of the last century, took a special interest in Rhodes Scholars elected from Arkansas. He was still doing that ten years later when he patronized Bill Clinton.
Among my summer friends in the Document Room was a smart guy who later became an American historian at the University of Wisconsin, where I ran into him again. We both regarded the Senate as though it were an all-star baseball team and we card-collectors. There were many highly prized cards, but for this fellow the Jack Kennedy card, had there been one, would have outranked the T208 Honus Wagner. One hot, bright afternoon after work we were walking near the Capitol vaguely in the direction we both lived when Senator John F. Kennedy drove right by us. We were not twenty feet away. He was driving a red convertible car with the top down. In the passenger’s seat at his side was a good-looking blonde. She could have been some latter-day Daisy Buchanan. They were both laughing.
Religious rapture is rare this side of baroque painting, but my friend’s affect surely must have approached that of Saint Helena when she saw the Vision of the True Cross. We had seen Kennedy often enough on the floor of the Senate, but this was entirely different. I myself was thrilled. “That man,” he said with oracular solemnity, “is going to be President.” He didn’t tell me that he would be President even before I got back from Oxford. Thus it is that I have in the book of memory two images of President Kennedy in an open car. One, shared with a whole horrified world, comes from the home movie of Abraham Zapruder. The other is a much more limited edition. Kennedy as Royal Victim. Kennedy as Prince Charming, somewhat childgered.