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The Overview Effect and the Camelot Effect

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Camelot resurfaced in the past half-century not only on Broadway but also in a film based on the musical, a movie called Excalibur, and as a description of the brief Presidency of John F. Kennedy.

The linking of President John F. Kennedy’s administration with Camelot represents a unique manifestation of the myth, and one that has been discussed at length, but often with a flawed understanding of what really took place from 1960 to 1963 in Washington, DC.

The typical description of the birth of the so-called “Camelot myth” in connection with the President is that Jacqueline Kennedy invented it after his death, as an attempt to burnish his image before the historians started defining him.  Meeting with journalist Theodore White a week after the assassination to discuss Kennedy’s legacy, she brought up the Camelot connection, recalling how the president enjoyed listening to songs from the musical:

This line from the musical comedy’s been almost an obsession with me.

At night before going to bed…  he’d play a couple of records… It was a song he loved… “Camelot.”  “Don’t let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot.” (5)

However, she also revealed something more, i.e., that Kennedy had been fascinated with the Arthurian legend from his youth, when he had been ill and often confined to bed, where he spent much of his time reading:

History made him what he was…he sat and read history…all the time he was in bed this little boy was reading history, was reading Marlborough, he devour[ed] the Knights of the Round Table…if history made Jack that way, made him see heroes, then other little boys will see…men are such a  combination of bad and good… He had that hero idealistic side but then he had that other side, the pragmatic side… (6)

This passage describes a President deeply influenced by Camelot, and suggests that the link began long before the interview of the widow by the journalist.  Instead, he appears to have structured his administration to mirror the court of Arthur.  Indeed, in the early 1960s, Washington, DC was alive with the energy of the young president and his “New Frontier.”  Young and old embarked on quests with the Peace Corps, Vista, and as part of the civil rights movement.   When we view the Kennedy years in this new way, everything that happened then takes on a different meaning.  In particular, we see the Apollo moon program, the greatest quest of all, in a new light.

King Arthur’s task was clear, especially as it was described in the film Excalibur, which remains one of the best explications of the story to date.  His challenge was to unify the fractured realm of Britain or it would not survive.  In the key moment of the movie, Arthur sends his knights out to find the Holy Grail, which is actually something other than a physical object.  In fact, the Grail is the unity of the kingdom under Arthur: “One land, one king.” (7)

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