'Camelot Under Siege'? N.Y. Times Suddenly Upset Modern Textbooks Belittle JFK

Fussing about textbook content is normally mocked by liberals, but not on the front page of Monday’s New York Times. The worry-soaked headline was “Textbooks Reassess Kennedy, Putting Camelot Under Siege.”

Adam Clymer, a former New York Times reporter (the one George W. Bush called a major league blankety-blank in 2000), was upset that the old idea of JFK as reviving America “as a young question, progressive land” was replaced with a focus on his “rather meager legislative accomplishments.” In other words, Clymer’s upset Kennedy verbiage transformed from myth to fact.

Apparently the 50th anniversary of the assassination has made it timely for Clymer to complain about what textbooks published in the Reagan-Bush years said about the Kennedy presidency. It's a little like NewsBusters complaining about Clymer's dated Ted Kennedy swooning.

Clymer seemed upset that Democratic heroes were assailed like everyone else as history moved into a “revisionist” frame of mind, seeking to cast off patriotic overtones:

Finally, the ’80s saw a shift in textbook historiography. Gilbert Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit organization that reviews educational materials, said the older approach concentrated on successes in American history. In the ’80s, he said, that was replaced by a “revisionist” approach that not only focused on injustices like the mistreatment of Indians but also highlighted flaws of those previously treated as heroic, like slaveholding among the founding fathers....

That change, enhanced by unflattering portrayals in journalism, books and television, may have made a big difference in perceptions of Kennedy. Gallup polls used to show the public ranking him as one of the greatest American presidents, sometimes topping Abraham Lincoln for first place as the choice of more than 20 percent.

His standing has declined in recent years. A recent New York Times poll ranked him fourth, at 10 percent. That placed him behind Ronald Reagan, Lincoln and Bill Clinton.

Textbooks were apparently better with ringing sentences about "Kennedy's true nature as a stateman became fully apparent." These newer textbooks are even so coarsely accurate that they acknowledge that JFK was boosted by a "smitten press" that extolled his glamour:

Most books from all years told how television helped him win in 1960, and many implied that a smitten press made his presidency seem more than it was. “His taste and grace awed the media and reporters endlessly extolled the first family’s glamour and vitality,” Paul S. Boyer and colleagues wrote in 1990 in “The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People.”

That aura, more than the policy record, endures.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis