100th anniversary: John F. Kennedy's lessons and legacy
Millions of Americans remember the moment they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. I'm one of them. I was a senior at St. Rose High School in Belmar, New Jersey, sitting in class, when the principal's shaky voice came over the public-address system announcing what had happened. We were marched to our adjacent Catholic church to pray for the president, but we were eventually told that he had died and we were sent home.
Dazed, we didn't know what to expect next. More assassinations? War? Revolution? Was a conspiracy at work? How would his family cope? These memories of what happened during that motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 remain vivid, a part of our coming of age as baby boomers and the start of the nation's loss of innocence.
Now, more than a half-century later, the United States is entering another period of intense focus on Kennedy with the approach of the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 29. Numerous commemorations are planned, including a year-long series of speeches, seminars and other events at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, a new exhibit on Kennedy at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, television documentaries and several new books including "JFK at 100" by the editors of Time-Life and "The Road to Camelot" by Tom Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie. In all of them, the lessons of Kennedy's presidency about leadership, communication, public relations and how to govern will be front and center. And by all indications Americans will again celebrate the brief Kennedy era as a rare period of creativity, inspiration and glamour in public life.
Political scientist Larry Sabato, a baby boomer who was deeply affected by JFK's assassination as a 10-year-old, told me, "He is frozen in time at age 46....There are only a few moments in anybody's life that everybody remembers, and that was one of them."
Perhaps the lessons that are most relevant today, during the self-absorbed and bombastic presidency of Donald Trump, are humility and restraint. Kennedy did not lack in confidence, but he realized there was much that he didn't know, and he was willing to listen and learn. He did this most notably in dealing with the military brass and the CIA, says historian and Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek. The fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 taught him to take the hawks' advice very skeptically, to trust his own ability to analyze events and size up other leaders, and to follow the counsel of his less belligerent and more creative advisers.
On domestic issues, his biggest lesson was that the growing campaign for civil rights had become not just a matter of politics but the most profound moral question of his day. Kennedy, a Democrat, showed little interest at first, but by the end of his 1,000 days as president he had endorsed civil rights as a moral crusade. One wonders if Trump can ever match Kennedy's learning curve. "It's hard to ever think about these two in the same sentence, or the same paragraph or the same chapter," says Sabato, who teaches as the University of Virginia.
Kennedy was more than a martyr who was killed in his prime. He also inspired people during his life. "Kennedy without question was the greatest rhetorician in the TV age," Sabato says.
Even Republicans agree. "John Kennedy's legacy continues to inspire and motivate the generations that have followed to enter public service and do what they can that will help America remain that shining city on a hill," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan.
Adds Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton: "Part of it is generational. A large portion of the baby boomer generation came of age during his era. He represented the generational change," from the group that organized and led allied forces in World War II such as President and former Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to the younger men who actually did the fighting.
Kennedy didn't have a stellar record of passing legislation during his nearly three years in office. He could never master Congress and bend it to his will. His personal life was very messy. Historians say he had multiple affairs and the news media kept them quiet because journalists at that time felt that a president's personal indiscretions, such as adultery, were out of bounds. He also had many physical ailments such as Addison's disease, gastrointestinal problems and severe and chronic back pain; these also were kept secret, as well as his constant use of drugs to relieve the suffering.
But Kennedy's popularity remains strong. An exhaustive poll done in 2013 for Sabato at the University of Virginia found that 52 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats called him one of America's best leaders, a rare bipartisan appeal. Sabato says the reasons for Kennedy's enduring mystique were "powerful optics" and "genuine inspiration." Historian David Greenberg of Rutgers has written in the Washington Post that "Kennedy's bright presidency and cruelly curtailed life became, after November 1963, a focal point for all that went wrong in the late 1960s--Vietnam, riots, a loss of trust in government--and a repository for the dreams of what might have been." Historian Doug Brinkley told history.com, "He's always going to represent American 'can-do'-ism and vigor," both in the United States and abroad, and he embodied the notions of "progress and 'we can do better.'"
This is Kennedy's enduring story--a promising life cut short before he could reach his full potential. Before Kennedy, all things seemed possible and Americans believed that their leadership could rise to any occasion. After Kennedy, the nation had an extended nervous breakdown, intensified by the 1968 murders of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, JFK's brother. The nation descended into a period of cynicism and corrosive distrust of America's leaders including Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford because of the humiliating and costly failure of the Vietnam war, the deterioration of race relations amid a series of urban riots, and serious economic trouble. Kennedy's death seemed to unleash the dark forces of American life, and the United States was never the same.
"The perception of Kennedy is almost purely stylistic," says Frank Donatelli, a baby boomer who was President Ronald Reagan's White House political director. "He was 43 years old [when elected] and he brought youth, vigor and style to the White House, which for the previous years was inhabited by Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt"--all old men who looked their age. In comparison, Kennedy was charismatic and handsome, with a stunning wife and gorgeous children, and they were photographed often in color rather than the drab black-and-white, making him and his family all the more vivid. They were first celebrity couple in the White House during the modern media age dominated by TV and "human interest" reporting.
Kennedy's Earlier Years
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, into a Boston family of Irish Catholics, the son of an affluent home maker and a fabulously rich investor and Hollywood producer. Known as Jack, he had eight brothers and sisters and they spent their early years enjoying a posh lifestyle, including private schools, yachts, servants, summer homes and trips to Europe. Kennedy attended prestigious schools, including Choate, a boarding school in Connecticut, and Harvard University. He was sickly as a boy and a young man but tried to be a striver, as his father, Joseph Kennedy, demanded.
He broke away from the comforts of his privileged life by volunteering for combat in the Pacific during World War II. The PT boat he commanded was sunk by the Japanese and he was credited with saving the lives of several crewmen. Later, his father arranged for him to be portrayed in the newspapers and magazines back home as a war hero as Jack was building his political career in Massachusetts and beyond. His father groomed him for the presidency and bankrolled his state and national campaigns. Jack served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1947 to 1953 and in the Senate from 1953 to 1961, when he was elected president.
He was the youngest person ever elected to the White House at 43 (Theodore Roosevelt had succeeded to the presidency at age 42 upon the death of William McKinley in 1901) and was the only Roman Catholic to ever serve as president. One of his key successes during the 1960 campaign was easing public fears that his first allegiance would be to the pope.
His campaign against Republican Richard Nixon was hard-fought from coast to coast. It featured the first nationally televised debate, which showed off Kennedy's charisma and steadiness while Nixon seemed pale, nervous and fidgety. Kennedy won the White House very narrowly but governed as if he had a mandate.
An Image of Charisma
JFK's image is still etched in the nation's mind as the charismatic young leader with big ideas, innate charm and an irresistible family. But as we now know, after a half-century of scholarship on Kennedy and his era, the real story is not quite the stuff of Camelot.
He never achieved very much in terms of winning congressional approval for his agenda. He was such a neophyte on foreign policy that he blundered badly at the Bay of Pigs, where he encouraged an invasion of Cuba by exiles from that communist-ruled island, only to have them killed and captured on the beaches in the absence of direct U.S. military intervention, which Kennedy refused to allow. He was taking steps to involve the United States more deeply in Vietnam, which eventually became a morass and the most hated, divisive war in U.S. history. Fearing accusations that he was allowing the communists to gain too much influence in Southeast Asia, he had increased the number of U.S. advisers in South Vietnam from a few hundred to 16,000, a clear escalation of U.S. involvement. But we will never know if would have escalated the conflict to immense proportions as his successor Lyndon Johnson did.
But it's the positives that are mostly celebrated about Kennedy and they will again take center stage in the coming weeks to mark his birthday. It's as if he inspired a cult of personality. Historian Dallek says, "What Kennedy had was a kind of celebrity, a kind of star power."
He inspired the country, especially young people, to enter public service with a stirring call in his inaugural address to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." He followed through by creating the Peace Corps and VISTA and recruiting thousands of idealistic people to volunteer their time and energy for worthy causes and to serve in government. He energized many citizens with his active agenda and a progressive spirit after eight somnolent if stable years under President Eisenhower. He called for the Moon landing, which after his death became one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of the 20th Century. Despite his troubled marital relationship, he was devoted to his children, Caroline and John, Jr.
Kennedy learned on the job and admitted his mistakes, which made him a better president the longer he served. He liked to surround himself with strong-minded advisers and encouraged them to disagree with him so he could get their unvarnished views. As his administration progressed, he became more confident in his own judgment, always guided by his brother and confident, Robert Kennedy, who was also attorney general.
Kennedy was deeply embarrassed and shocked by the disastrous outcome of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, but he accepted responsibility for the catastrophe and he learned to be skeptical of the hawkish military brass and the "experts" in the intelligence community, says Dallek.
Partly as a result of that learning experience, Kennedy performed much better during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The United States and the Soviet Union came perilously close to nuclear war, but after 13 days of uncertainty and tension, Kennedy came away with success. After a U.S. naval blockade designed to prevent more arms from reaching Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the USSR's nuclear missile sites from the island nation. In exchange, the Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba and, separately, also agreed to remove American nuclear missiles from Turkey, which the Kremlin considered a threat.
After this, superpower tensions eased. Kennedy went on to give a celebrated commencement address in June 1963 at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he was remarkably conciliatory. "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet," the president said. "We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963.
A large part of Kennedy's success at home came from his recognition of the power of television. He leveraged it against Republican nominee Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential debates and, as he settled into the presidency, he used TV extensively to built on his celebrity.
He realized he could be in America's living rooms constantly through TV, but that he needed to be a star to have the most impact and to boost his popularity. He did this brilliantly, though live news conferences, interviews, speeches and the deft release of glowing photos of himself, his wife and children. He also associated with famous film stars, including Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford (a brother-in-law), and was romantically linked with Marilyn Monroe.
His celebrity status went a long way toward improving presidential public relations in general. As I pointed out in my book "Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom," Kennedy mastered TV in the same way President Franklin D. Roosevelt had mastered radio, but Kennedy went further, cultivating his image in a more methodical and comprehensive way. As the nation's celebrity in chief, Kennedy emerged as America's leading man.
In spite of his reputation as a womanizer and his use of drugs to keep the pain of his many health issues at bay, the TV cameras focused on his enormous grace under pressure, while at the same time presenting him as a good family man with a gorgeous wife and two beautiful children. He used his celebrity status to keep the nation's attention and to capture America's imagination -- something politicians continue to do to this day.
Following his example, media managers and presidents who have come after Kennedy have attempted to create favorable images as based on personality instead of policy, honing their messages to resonate in our increasingly celebrity-driven culture. This has, in turn, led to a more nasty and divisive politics as candidates felt free to savage one another personally and mercilessly.
Kennedy and Civil Rights
Another turning point under Kennedy involved civil rights. He seemed to have little interest in the issue when he took office, believing that he would mostly deal with foreign policy, especially relations with the Soviet Union. His interactions with African Americans were limited to the valet who prepared his wardrobe and drew his baths.
But Kennedy gradually sided with the civil rights movement. As a hero during World War II, he respected physical courage and he saw it displayed in news coverage of civil-rights protesters who were beaten by segregationists and attacked by police dogs. On June 11, 1963, five months before his assassination, he went on national television and called for full equality between blacks and whites.
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he declared. "It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution....We preach freedom around the world, but are we to say to the world and to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?" He called for sweeping legislation to end segregation in education, to protect the right to vote and to extend equality to other areas of American life. He died before he could achieve these goals, but they were accomplished by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who had been JFK's vice president and who made Kennedy's legacy his own.
Kennedy also cultivated the image of being a patron of the arts, which ingratiated him to the intelligentsia. Kennedy had enhanced his personal reputation as an intellectual with his book "Profiles in Courage," which focused on eight senators whom Kennedy said showed great courage while under intense political pressure. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. But the high point of Kennedy's reputation as a connoisseur of the arts came when he and his wife hosted world famous cellist Pablo Casals at the White House on Nov. 13, 1961. Kennedy wasn't familiar with Casals and his music but the first lady convinced him to invite the cellist to perform. The president was so uncertain about what to do that he needed instructions from his social secretary Letitia Baldridge on how to behave, including a reminder that he should wait for an encore before getting up from his seat. The event drew rave reviews for Casals and for Kennedy as a cultured host.
It was after Kennedy's murder by Lee Harvey Oswald--still the subject today of unproven conspiracy theories--that his wife Jackie elevated her husband into mythic status. She surrounded his memory with the aura of Camelot, the magical realm of legend led by the wise and brave King Arthur, as depicted in the popular musical "Camelot" that began a long Broadway run in 1960.
"At night, before we'd go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this [soundtrack]," she told journalist Theodore White in an interview for Life magazine. "The lines he loved to hear were: 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."
Many Americans still haven't forgotten, and John F. Kennedy stands out in their minds and their memories as what a president should be.
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