Just released interviews of Jacqueline Kennedy conducted by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1964 reveal a rift between the first families of sixties liberalism at odds with the historical narrative. “I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible,” the former First Lady explained. She labeled the minister a “terrible sex pest.” Citing reports from her husband of the minister’s bacchanalian exploits (it takes one to know one?), and gossip that a drunk King had made rude remarks at her husband’s funeral, Mrs. Kennedy labeled the civil rights leader “a really tricky person.”
Neither King nor the Kennedys emerge from the airing of the half-century-old dirty laundry entirely clean. The Kennedys appear as peeping toms at best and as slanderers at worst. Perhaps King is entirely innocent of the accusations, but coming from his ostensible political allies they seem harder to dismiss than smears from racists.
So when the two-hour ABC News program on Jackie Kennedy’s long lost interviews blamed neither King nor the Kennedys for the mutual enmity but J. Edgar Hoover, the contention left viewers perplexed. Mrs. Kennedy, after all, maintains on the tapes broadcast on ABC that she derived all of her political opinions from her husband. She made no mention of the FBI director’s sway over her.
Caroline Kennedy told Diane Sawyer that her mother’s negative assessment of the civil rights leader demonstrates the “poisonous” influence of J. Edgar Hoover. She continued that “the idea that this is going on at the highest levels of government is really twisted.” Historian Michael Beschloss claimed that Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh words for King resulted from J. Edgar Hoover’s manipulation of the First Family. The FBI director “did everything possible to make Dr. King look like somebody from another planet,” John Lewis, sixties civil rights activist and current congressman, claimed. “I cannot believe that Dr. King ever said anything in a negative manner about President Kennedy.”
Ever? Even when the president attempted to strongarm King into canceling the March on Washington? When he sicced FBI snoops upon the minister? When he put civil rights legislation on the backburner?
The Kennedy brothers ordered J. Edgar Hoover to investigate Martin Luther King. The way the Kennedys, a court historian, and political allies tell it, the FBI director ordered the attorney general and the president around. To believe this upside-down story one must reject what we know about the structure of relationships between underlings and bosses; we must assume mesmeristic powers in J. Edgar Hoover and invertebrate weakness in the Kennedys; we must suspend reality for political comfort.
The controversy highlights two methods of historical revisionism employed to harmonize the problematic policies of liberal heroes with the outlook of contemporary liberals. The first imagines J. Edgar Hoover as the marionette pulling the strings of every Democratic president from Woodrow Wilson through Lyndon Johnson. The second projects beliefs fashionable among today’s liberals upon liberal icons, such as John F. Kennedy and his famous family.
The first tactic was on display when the Washington Post revealed in 2009 that President Lyndon Johnson had authorized an investigation into his friend Jack Valenti’s personal life. The paper claimed he did so only “under FBI pressure.” A 2007 book by Kenneth Ackerman takes the Hoover-made-me-do-it theory to preposterous extremes by blaming the Palmer Raids on a then 24-year-old, mid-level bureaucrat. “J. Edgar Hoover had been [attorney general A. Mitchell] Palmer’s special assistant when the raids began on November 7, 1919, and he had his fingerprints all over them,” Ackerman insists. The author actually claims that it is impossible to tie President Wilson to his own raids because he never said whether he supported them or not. Using J. Edgar Hoover to excuse Democratic presidents for trampling upon civil liberties is by now a familiar dodge.
So, too, are attempts to warp Kennedy history to fit the beliefs of their current admirers. Joe McCarthy serving as godfather to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Kennedys illegally wiretapping Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hanson Baldwin, and President Kennedy’s involvement of U.S. troops in Vietnam are among the inconvenient truths that present-day liberals excuse away or airbrush entirely.
History isn’t a play to be tweaked to suit the audience’s fancy. The stories we live aren’t as neat as the stories we pay to see. The person offstage may differ from the center-stage persona. The leading actors that we like don’t always like each other.
In the wake of the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the pair would find themselves linked in history and on the living room walls of many admirers. But to hear Jackie Kennedy talk, she couldn’t glance upon MLK’s visage later so often beside her husband’s without concluding: “that man’s terrible.”