JFK is consistently ranked in the top three Presidents of all time in public polls (alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) but regularly fails to reach the top ten in polls of historians. What accounts for this discrepancy?
The real John F. Kennedy vanished on November 22nd 1963, and Kennedy’s legacy was stretched to meet the expectations of his supporters.
Richard Slotkin argued that ‘the hero of a modern mass culture myth is offered as the embodiment of certain natural and historical principles or forces, as an idealized representation of his people’s characteristic traits, and as a model for emulation.’
To many, this was JFK. He became the American mythology incarnate. Underpinning this durability is Kennedy’s unparalleled image. It can be broken down into 5 key facets: War Record, Literary Achievements, Family, Style and Sex.
Achievements in the field of battle elevate any American politician above his peers, and JFK was no exception.
Kennedy served in the navy in the South Pacific as commander of Pt-109. On 2 August 1943 Kennedy’s boat was split in two by a Japanese destroyer. He and his crew swam for an island some miles away, JFK towing one man by holding his life-jacket between his teeth. They were rescued a week later after JFK had swam to other islands in search of help.For what was an undoubtedly courageous action Kennedy received the Purple Heart. So far so fair.
However Kennedy would later embellish the story, claiming he’d saved 3 lives rather than 1. His father, the driving force behind his political career, saw that the story was heavily covered in the press (notably featured by Henry Fairlie in Life Magazine) and it was eventually turned into a feature-length film.
JFK is so far the only President to have won a Pulitzer Prize.. While convalescing from a back operation in 1956, Kennedy observed the creation of a short book profiling Senators who had shown extraordinary courage. Note the italics.
It is now widely believed that Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, was the book’s principal author.
Regardless Profiles In Courage, with the assistance of Joe Kennedy Sr., won the Pulitzer. This alongside Kennedy’s successfully published doctoral thesis, Why England Slept (1940), made for an impressive body of work.
JFK symbolised the family more than any other politician.
The moniker ‘American Royalty’ that is constantly attached to the Kennedy family is often misplaced, but it works in the sense that the large family was glamorous.
JFK’s sisters held tea parties along the campaign trail, and thousands of housewives would flock to them just for the experience of meeting a Kennedy. His brothers were also staunch political allies.
In his father JFK also had an exceptional political patron. His political lineage was strong – JPK Sr. had been Ambassador to Britain and his maternal grandfather, Honey-Fitz, was a huge political player in Boston.
In the early 1950s JFK also started a young family with Jacqueline Bouvier. They soon received favourable press attention.
Of enduring fascination is Kennedy’s relationship with his children. Children played a central role in his life and there is a litany of anecdotal evidence attesting to the fact that he doted over them.
A sense of tragedy has burnished the family’s allure. Premature death is a haunting feature of the Kennedy story. By the time he’d reached the Presidency JFK had lost three siblings prematurely, and after Dallas the family lost his brother Bobby to an assassin’s bullet and his son Jfk Jr. to a plane accident.
Kennedy was image savvy, his own personal stylist who was constantly aware of how he looked.
This meant that he thrived in the new era of televised politics. His performance in the first televised Presidential debate in 1960, for example, is widely credited with winning him the election.
JFK also cultivated the impression that he was a cultured man. He had Pablo Casals, a world famous cellist, perform in the White House. He also had Robert Frost as his ‘Poet Laureate’ and held events for Nobel Prize winners. The rather dreary Eisenhower White House was revived as a centre of art and culture.
In this endeavour he was helped no end by the Francophile, multi-lingual Jackie. She fronted a renovation of the White House and even gave a televised White House tour.
She also secured a temporary loan of the Mona Lisa to Washington (it was viewed by over a million people over a three month period.)
Kennedy also associated with Frank Sinatra and the rat pack, a ringing endorsement of his style credentials. In fact, Sinatra also wrote a campaign song for him.
Tied into Kennedy’s style was his sex appeal. Young for a politician, Kennedy drew legions of women to the voting booth.
As an aide put it ‘the girls want to marry him, the mothers want to mother him.’
In his early years JFK was often very thin and pale, a reflection of his often terrible health – he had Addison’s disease that was repeatedly misdiagnosed- but new steroid treatments gave him a healthier complexion.
Although it was unknown at the time, Kennedy’s sex appeal was probably helped by the fact that he was in reality very sexually active. Among his most famous conquests were Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Anita Ekberg. The associations between JFK and these women in the media were implicit but strong.
These five points alone combine to create a remarkably potent image. By contrast Barack Obama, who generated a huge amount of hype and was elevated to Presidency on an intoxicating mixture of rhetoric and promise, could only lay claim to three parallels with Kennedy – literary ability, family appeal and style.
JFK also had the benefit of more intangible qualities. He was the first true President to cross the consciousness of the baby-boomer generation. The first President born in the twentieth century, there are numerous accounts of people’s first contact with politics being through the hype around JFK.
One should also note the fact that Kennedy’s legacy was carefully, consciously shaped. Jackie gave her first interview after the death to Theodore White, a Kennedy ally, and discussed the fact that JFK liked to listen to the Lerner and Loewe musical ‘Camelot’ in the evenings. She quoted his favorite phrase ‘There was for one brief shining moment, Camelot.’
‘Camelot’ has now become the accepted sobriquet for the Kennedy myth. The ‘Camelot’ school of historians is the favorable school and was established after Kennedy’s amanuenses – Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen -hurried out huge biographies in the aftermath of the assassination.
White later said ‘I was her instrument in labeling the Kennedy myth.’
Kennedy was also accepted into the pantheon of 60s liberals – Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy among them – despite having a fairly undistinguished record on this score. His early death was no doubt a key factor in this.
Also, his New Frontier rhetoric complemented the sense of adventure, confidence and flexibility with which he would deal with problems. JFK respected bravery and physical courage, and to the public he embodied young, guerrilla boldness.
Garry Wills called Kennedy’s New Frontier approach the ‘opium of the intellectuals.’ Kennedy certainly cultivated guardians of the legacy, transmuting a familial sense of loyalty and dedication into government.
Robert Kennedy even named three of his children after government advisors, thereby instilling a sense of loyalty among advisors and journalists, the latter effectively becoming government spokesmen.
JFK got a remarkably easy-ride from journalists, for they must have been away of his extra-marital activities yet never disclosed them openly. One could attribute this silence to an era of politics when the private and public were firmly divorced, and to the fact that the wealthy, north-eastern born and bred Kennedy had a basic affinity with a media that was based around New York.
A final point: JFK’s death is suffused with the tragedy of what might have been. The bloody disaster of Vietnam and the racial upheaval of the 60s could, some believe, have been avoided by a second JFK term.
This last point doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny – JFK had a hawkish disposition toward Vietnam and would have faced the same intractable decisions as Johnson, and his death was probably his single greatest contribution to passing the 1964 civil rights bill – and herein lies the reason for the discrepancy between the public and historical opinion.
JFK was not allowed to grow old, to be confronted with his misdemeanour’s and mistakes in a post-presidential position.