John Kennedy and James Bond: Town & Gown Lecture with Professor Steve Watts
For the Kinder Institute’s first Town & Gown Dinner Symposium of the 2015-16 academic year, University of Missouri Professor of History Steve Watts provided a preview of the final chapter of his new book, Kennedy Adonais: JFK, the Masculine Mystique, and American Political Culture, which is forthcoming in 2016 from St. Martin’s Press.
Prof. Watts began by outlining the methodology behind Kennedy Adonais, describing how his goal was to supplement scholarship focused on Kennedy’s politics with a book that approaches Kennedy as a cultural figure. In establishing the immense value of those works that examine Kennedy as a centrist Cold War politician, Prof. Watts added that they are by nature somewhat limited in their capacity both to explain the cultural phenomenon of Kennedy’s celebrity and to resolve certain contradictions with which historians, media members, and citizens have struggled when considering the 35th President’s legacy—his status as both a peace advocate and an anti-Communist Cold Warrior, for example, or his public life as a devoted family man and his (barely) private life as a known playboy.
As a way of introducing the primary subject matter of his talk, Prof. Watts noted how studying Kennedy as a cultural figure provides an opportunity to understand his rise to political power and public fame within the larger context of what Arthur Schlesinger, in a 1958 essay in Esquire, called “the crisis of American masculinity.” More specifically, the youthful, handsome, intellectual, individualistic Kennedy served, Prof. Watts explained, as a virile and welcome foil in the narrative in which factors such as suburban isolation, bureaucratic inactivity, and aggressive women compromised notions of maleness that were prevalent in the 1940s and early-1950s. Kennedy himself marked his own place in this counter-narrative to lost maleness when, in accepting his nomination for the presidency at the 1960 Democratic Convention, he spoke of how the challenges of navigating “the New Frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats” would be made easier by the fact that “all over the world young men” like himself were “coming to power, men who [were] not bound by the traditions of the past” or “blinded by the old fears.”
As Prof. Watts pointed out, whether out of affection for the president or disdain for his Republican opponents, this vision of Kennedy-as-exemplar of a new mold of leader quickly caught on, especially as the press perpetuated the image of JFK as the kind of new frontiersman capable of guiding the nation through the perilous waters of Cold War politics. Prof. Watts added that this image of Kennedy the new frontiersmen was further supported by the company he kept. While figures like Norman Mailer, Frank Sinatra, and John Glenn all embodied the president’s masculine agenda, it was his friendship with British novelist Ian Fleming that Prof. Watts focused on in exploring the significance of the circle of celebrities in which Kennedy operated.
Like Kennedy, Fleming’s subversive and unpredictable protagonist, James Bond, provided a potent alternative to the image of the compliant male, weakened by the bureaucratic state and the suburban tract home. The parallels between Bond and Kennedy, Prof. Watts went on to explain, went beyond style and sexuality, seeping in to the President’s foreign policy agenda. While emphasizing that Kennedy certainly did not draw political strategy from For Russia with Love, Prof. Watts noted that there is ample evidence to suggest that Bond’s exploits at least to some degree shaped JFK’s perception of issues as well as tactics. For Kennedy, the CIA resembled a master crew of 007s—athletically, intellectually, and socially elite individuals whose innovation and daring would be necessary to successfully combat Communism. Prof. Watts concluded by citing Kennedy’s “Operation Mongoose” as establishing perhaps the clearest line of connection from Bond to the CIA under JFK. From its focus on psychological warfare to its assassination-by-exploding cigar plot, the covert, counter-insurgency operation seemed, in many ways, to be derived, if not directly ripped, from the pages of fiction.