John F. Kennedy remains a subject of apparently endless public fascination, and Michael J. Hogan advances our understanding of the many reasons why. Synthesizing an expansive secondary literature and a range of primary sources, Hogan charts the evolution of Kennedy nostalgia—his term for capturing Kennedy's enduring appeal—from JFK's pre-presidential years through his thousand days in the White House to the fifty years beyond that period. Ultimately, Hogan locates the essence of that nostalgia in the present and the future: Kennedy makes people feel good, and the ideals affixed to his presidency and persona allow Americans to bask in an uplifting image of themselves and their country. Hogan begins his exploration of what he calls the Kennedy “brand” in chapters devoted to the White House restoration and to the varied events that Kennedy either hosted or attended with dignitaries at home and abroad. In recounting those staged performances, Hogan rightly observes that the myth of Camelot took shape during Kennedy's presidency, with its elements settling largely into place at the time of the assassination. Owing to that foundation, the “flashbulb memory” of the assassination in Dallas would sear the more positive associations of JFK and his tenure—celebrations of confidence and charisma, charm and compassion, heroism and vitality, and, above all, courage—into a collective global conscience, dominating appraisals of Kennedy for years to come. Memory is about forgetting as much as remembering, and Hogan reflects on this insight as he charts how friends and family both concealed and revealed aspects of JFK in their construction of the Kennedy brand. Unsurprisingly, his treatment of the assassination and its aftermath depicts Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy rising to the fore as the primary keeper of the Kennedy flame. Subsequent descriptions of associated monuments to the martyred president, whether of “glass, steel, and stone” or of “paper and pen,” expose that brand in sites such as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the formerly named Cape Kennedy, as well as in the historiographical wars that mark a seemingly ceaseless stream of books and articles (pp. 128, 101). Within that literature, Hogan appears to situate himself as a postrevisionist, ascribing Kennedy's policy failings to the political context of the era as much as to the moral character of the man. Although he devotes little space to discussing those policies, Hogan acknowledges Kennedy's inspirational message—which continues to resonate—as well as his manifest shortcomings. The pursuit of such balance has been hard to come by, however, as scholars have frequently found themselves thwarted by brand management. Embodied by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the preference for heritage over history has, through the years, resulted in the selective opening of archival collections, preferential treatment for sympathetic authors, and rapid response to unflattering portrayals. While trenchant, this critique of the Kennedy machine would have benefited from a more rigorous comparison with the practices of other presidential libraries and their respective coteries. Regardless, the battle between feeling and fact will likely continue. But so long as Kennedy's brand remains inspirational, particularly in polarizing times, consensus may yet emerge on the virtues of both style and substance. Ultimately, that convergence may say as much about the state of the presidency as it does about Kennedy's stewardship of it. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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