A company in Connecticut is manufacturing dolls of a boy dressed in short trousers and a gray overcoat and whose right hand his drawn to his right temple in permanent salute. If it weren't for that hand, there would be no guessing as to who the boy is meant to represent—it could be Harry Potter without his spectacles—but the position of the hand says it all. The doll is of John F. Kennedy Jr., and the pose is immensely familiar: Here is the dutiful son saluting the coffin of his father in Washington, D.C., in November of 1963. Even Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post finds the doll both crass and commercial—the doll was in stores last week, just in time for the second anniversary of Kennedy's death. More pertinently, the doll perhaps doesn't truly represent what happened that morning and at that moment in November of 1963.
Some years ago, I worked at George, the magazine Kennedy founded in 1995 and edited until his death in 1999. In 1997, Playboy ran a profile of Kennedy, and one morning, shortly after the article appeared, Kennedy referred to it as an example of the wonders of fact-checking and truth in journalism—though on this occasion, as on many others, he was joking. The first three paragraphs of the Playboy article, he went on to say, were not accurate. Curious as to what was wrong, I bought a copy of the magazine and turned to the offending paragraphs, which, as it happened, were about Kennedy as a boy, who, at the command of his mother (so we've been led to believe), salutes the coffin that carries his father's remains. This, however, was apparently not so.
Lunch time passed, and the opportunity to ask Kennedy what he meant never presented itself. More important, I wasn't bold enough to raise the question. But after his death, when the salute was a never-ending refrain on television and in the newsmagazines, I recalled that meeting and what Kennedy had said. Now, one can only guess as to his meaning and, as I came to believe it, rightly or wrongly, the answer lay in plain sight. In that famous scene, he wasn't saluting his father, because the camera could not have captured the picture; the cortege would have blocked the view. It was far more likely, I believe, that he was mimicking the saluting guardsmen who lined the street. He was having a moment of fun on an otherwise grim occasion.
So, why do we all believe the fable? It's not as if anyone asked Kennedy to elaborate. There's a view that all small children are very good and do what their mothers tell them. Experience tells us otherwise; small children are very naughty and often do exactly what they want regardless of what their parents say. Kennedy was probably no different, however much you may wish to believe the contrary.
Where's "Omnivore"? Inigo Thomas' Idea of the Day has replaced his Omnivore column. The name is new, and the layout has been streamlined, but Inigo will still focus on what's happening in arts and culture around the world. You may read the entire Omnivore archives by clicking here.
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