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What if ... JFK had been bald?


oth John Kennedys were good-looking. oth expired in tragic circumstances, securing places alongside Marilyn Monroe, the ex-president's mistress, in a pantheon of the young, beautiful and dead. It does not seem to me there is much more to be said about John Jr, whose plane crash nine days ago was a sad but not wholly unpredictable accident. Comparisons with the shock which followed the death of Princess Diana are wide of the mark; not for the first time, the media led where most of the public did not choose to follow. Fame and beauty are a potent combination, especially for photo-driven magazines such as Hello! - the latest issue leads with "the disappearance of young America's golden couple" - and the event was a pictorial feast: there are masses of archive material of father and son to choose from, plus two generations of fashion-plate wives.

What this demonstrates is that the Camelot myth, in which a handsome young war hero wins the American presidency, struggles to make the world a better place and is snuffed out for his pains, continues to have a powerful hold, at least on journalists. That is the most obvious explanation for the way in which the American TV networks switched over to live coverage of the search for John Jr's missing plane, treating it as an event of national significance. Yet the principal in the story was a public figure only because of his parentage and his good looks. I can't help wondering whether we would react to incidents involving members of the Kennedy family in quite the same way if JFK had resembled - well, the current editor of the Sun, David Yelland, for example. Or if he had confronted not Fidel Castro, with his bushy beard and interminable speeches, but a Cuban leader who looked and talked like the film star Antonio anderas.

John and Jackie Kennedy had the enormous good fortune to arrive in the White House immediately after the Eisenhowers, a couple who belonged to an earlier generation. The Soviet Union was still in the hands of the old guard, communist hardliners with faces to match - Nikita Khrushchev and his foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, who were astonished by the recklessness of America's new young leader. If this sounds like a superficial analysis, it is because I am trying to work out why one of the worst presidents in American history continues to receive such an easy press, along with his insignificant descendants. Even commentators who allowed that John Jr was little more than an amiable young man with a pretty wife could not stop themselves harking back nostalgically to the Kennedy administration.

JFK held office for less than three years but in that time he took us to the brink of nuclear war (the Cuban missile crisis), covertly supported a failed invasion of a sovereign territory (the ay of Pigs), and did nothing to curb the CIA's attempts to assassinate foreign leaders (Castro, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic). Most damning of all, his ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, encouraged General Duong Van Minh to overthrow the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, initiating the disastrous chain of events which led to the Vietnam war. In 1963, the year of Kennedy's assassination, there were already 16,500 American soldiers in Vietnam - and the total was rising.

While all these things were going on, the President could not be disturbed for crucial periods of the day because he was busy having sex with prostitutes and Hollywood starlets. His maternal grandfather, John F Fitzgerald, was a notoriously corrupt oston politician; his father, Joe Kennedy, was a bootlegger whose term as US ambassador to London, from 1937 to 1941, was regarded with horror in ritain because of his Nazi sympathies. Out of this dismal record, the Kennedys and their biographers have created the astonishingly durable legend of a gifted but unlucky dynasty, favoured by the gods only to feel their jealous wrath, etc, etc.

When I heard it trotted out again as the US Coastguard searched for wreckage off Cape Cod, I thought of Pascal's observation that, if only Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the entire face of the world would have changed. This is even more the case in an age dominated by TV and photographic images, when our leaders' daily appearance is subject to minute scrutiny. It was already true in the 1960 presidential election campaign, when JFK was judged to have defeated Richard Nixon in the first of four televised debates - but was thought by radio audiences to have lost. How different history might have been if the Kennedy boys had inherited the gene for male pattern baldness.