American idealization of the presidency created Camelot, and American disillusion with government prompted its decline. At the height of JFK’s administration, Camelot received positive press that reinforced an image of the Kennedy family as glamorous, wholesome, and innocent. News that could have potentially threatened the basis of America’s reinvigorated confidence and enthusiasm towards the presidency was routinely withheld from the public. The decline of Camelot following JFK’s assassination is intricately related to the changing attitudes of the press through the decades, as conspiracy theories and later Nixon’s Watergate scandal decreased government support and increased the public’s demand for scandalous news that seemingly revealed truth. The release of new information pertaining to the private lives of the Kennedy family members since JFK’s death has affected the public’s view of Camelot, prompting them to move from recognizing Camelot as a political empire to identifying Camelot as a source of Hollywood-style entertainment.
During his presidency JFK entertained extra-marital relationships with, among others, Mary Meyer, Judith Campbell Exner and Marilyn Monroe. Yet these relationships were not revealed to the public until more than a decade after his death, when his link to Exner was included in a Senate report. “The Senate report had a profound impact on the public’s view of the martyred president…not only an illicit love affair in the White House, but a link to the Mafia…It disappointed many of Kennedy’s admirers, particularly Catholics. Jack’s sexual licentiousness left them with feelings of moral revulsion and betrayal.” (Maier, 520) Disillusionment with the behavior of America’s prince eroded the legacy of Camelot, and many began to investigate the notion that “the magic of Camelot and John F. Kennedy never existed.”(Maier, 521) This idea prompted further investigation into the lives of the Kennedy clan, with Kennedy sex scandals becoming a topic of popular speculation.
Publicity of Jackie’s relationships after JFK’s death also derided the myth of Camelot, particularly when she married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis in 1968. Shortly after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Jackie announced her intent to marry Onassis and move to Greece. American reaction to this remarriage centered on the fact that she “seemed to be pulling the curtain down on the Camelot era, a myth that she had created but no longer appeared willing to maintain.” (Maier, 526) This perceived abandonment of Camelot both symbolically, with Jackie remarrying, and literally, with her relocating abroad, led the American people to question the image, dispelling the illusion Camelot previously maintained.
Camelot additionally signified the political might of the Kennedy family, as at the time of JFK’s presidency Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, not to mention others in the extended family, held positions in the government. In 1961 a Washington Star political humor column even joked, “President Kennedy swears to uphold the Constitution. From now on, no Kennedy will serve more than two terms, waiting his turn until his older brother is through.” (Anthony, 1) After the assassinations of JFK and RFK, however, the success of Kennedys’ in politics faltered, with Joseph Kennedy II withdrawing from politics after a messy divorce, Max Kennedy terminating his campaign for a seat in Congress after being behind in polls and Mark Kennedy Shriver losing the Democratic Primary in Maryland’s Eighth Congressional District. (Klein, 224) The public’s image of the invincibility of the Kennedy family underwent further damage after such failures, serving as yet another catalyst of the Camelot’s demise.
The decline of Camelot is linked to the revelation of Camelot as a flawed, vulnerable institution. American disillusionment with the government fueled the public’s interest in Kennedy scandals, an investigation that ultimately exposed discrepancies in JFK’s character. Fixation with the image of Camelot prompted the press to continue tracking Jackie after the assassination, and her remarriage signaled, in the American psyche, the end of an era. The notion of Camelot as a political empire similarly deconstructed, as various Kennedys failed in their political pursuits. Today the Kennedy name and Camelot image is synonymous with celebrity, prompting Americans to view the family not for their political accomplishments, but for their contributions to popular culture.