When Edward Kennedy died on 25 August, I thought of a photograph that used to hang in our house when I was a child: a little family group featuring Edward’s eldest brother, John, his wife Jacqueline and their daughter Caroline. It’s a black-and-white picture of the three of them, in which little Caroline is kissing her dad on the cheek while her mother looks on, perfectly coiffed, wearing a pearl necklace and a silk dress with a boat neck designed to set off those glorious collar bones. This is a scene from Camelot; what’s interesting is that it was hung on a wall in Delhi.
Candid camera: The Kennedys captured in a moment. AFP
The other framed pictures we had in the house were of sacred ancestors: my father’s grandfather, my grandfathers, a grandmother, a photograph of Gandhiji looking down, a painting of Gurudev in a brown maxi and a picture of Einstein and Nehru in conversation, the great man looking amused in a baggy sweater, Nehru smiling eagerly in a suit.
Kennedy shared our walls with them because he, like them, was dead. In my mind, his death and Nehru’s were obscurely joined probably because they occurred in quick succession: Kennedy was shot at the end of 1963 and Nehru died in May the following year. But even so, there was something incongruous about this family picture from another world that hung on our walls.
The other foreigner, Einstein, was a) so famous that even I had heard of him at age 6 and b) he was there in Nehru’s company so his presence was easily explained, but why were we so keen on Jack and Jacqueline? It couldn’t just have been that he was the president of the United States: There had been other presidents in that country’s recent past—Eisenhower and FDR—who were both more distinguished and more comprehensively dead, who hadn’t made the cut. Perhaps it was him being the youngest president and the fact that Jacqueline and he were a famously good-looking couple, plus the tragic and sinister circumstances of his death, that made them special. I can only guess.
What I know for certain is that our weird sense of connection with John Kennedy was so strong that when Jacqueline married the Greek magnate, Aristotle Onassis, five years after Kennedy’s death, we managed to feel indignant and self-righteous on his behalf. Gold-digger, I thought, with the moral certainty that only an 11-year-old can work up. Tramp.
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The man I was being loyal to was a Pulitzer Prize winner who hadn’t written the book that bore his name; he was a liberal senator who hadn’t voted when the Senate censured the witch-hunting Joseph McCarthy (he was a family friend); he was a president who had committed America to its wicked war in Vietnam and then presided over the Bay of Pigs disaster and who, despite his reputation as a patron of the civil rights movement, was so ambivalent about it that he allowed the paranoid Edgar Hoover to bug Martin Luther King.
John Kennedy was famous because during the Cold War he was, by default, the “leader of the Free World” and he managed to dramatize that role with killer lines. There was the crowd-pleasing “Ich bin ein Berliner” when the Russians began to build the Berlin Wall and then there was his ideologically brilliant use of the space race when he seemed to commandeer the future by committing America to the moon.
I think the reason why this Cold War glamour, this Kennedy worship among Indians of that generation, seems mysterious in retrospect is because we misremember the national mood in the early 1960s. Indians tend to see that time through the distorting lens of Mrs Gandhi’s subsequent tilt towards the Soviet Union in the late 1960s.
Till Nehru died, India was properly non-aligned, closer, if anything, to America than the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary had offended Nehru’s democratic sensibilities; Kennedy, accompanied by Jacqueline, had visited India, and Indians were the recipients of massive US aid, specially the grain shipments under the PL 480 programme, which Kennedy had renamed Food for Peace. This intense Indian-American honeymoon was cut short first by Kennedy’s death and then Nehru’s but the romance was real and it shaped the way we felt about this couple from Camelot.
So there he was, this serial adulterer, playing the domesticated family man on the walls of a conventionally middle-class Indian home. Which brings us back to his brother, Edward Kennedy, who was recently sent off to the hereafter buoyed by a tsunami of collective affection. The obituaries and notices, including a moving eulogy by President Obama, made little mention of the human casualties of Edward Kennedy’s extraordinary political career: Mary Jo Kopechne, who died in the car accident at Chappaquiddick, and Joan, his first wife, the mother of his three children, who was helped along the high road to alcoholism by her erratic husband’s infidelities and indiscretions. It’s hard to be robustly plainspoken about the recently dead.
Should we ask old photos questions that they can’t answer? Should there be a moral reckoning for public men? Joyce Carol Oates, an American novelist who wrote a novel, Black Water, based on the Chappaquiddick tragedy, raises the question and supplies a bleak, resigned answer: “Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?
The poet John Berryman once wondered: “Is wickedness soluble in art?” One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: “Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?”
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: Individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.”
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at email@example.com