Looking back at JFK whose death and private life often overshadowed his presidency

On the centenary of John F Kennedy’s birth, TP O’Mahony looks back at a US politician whose tragic death and lurid private life have sometimes overshadowed the significance of his presidency

THE first time I heard the Suzanne Vega single ‘When Heroes Go Down’ was while I was immersed in a file of quotations and remembrances of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States who was born 100 years ago today (29 May 1917).

The title of that single seemed apt then, and still does. Every age needs its heroes, and JFK was without question one of the heroes of that incandescent decade — the 1960s.

His name and his reputation have, of course, been vilified and shredded during the interim. Certain books have sought to paint a picture of a sordid White House and a besmirched Camelot.

For some authors, Kennedy the womaniser, the satyr, is all that exists. The politician, the statesman, the visionary, the husband and the father have been all but obscured in their eyes. But all attempts to rubbish his reputation have left the essence of the Kennedy presidency untouched.

In any history of the American presidency, JFK ranks very high in terms of popularity. It may be that his tragic death has coloured our perception of the man and his presidency, but other factors also come into play here.

Any assessment of the latter has to take into account the enormous impact of the Kennedy style. “No president in the 20th century combined his rhetoric, wit, charm, youth, and Hollywood appearance,” said James N Giglio of Southwest Missouri State University in his book The Presidency of John F Kennedy.

“He inspired young Americans to choose politics and government service as honoured professions,” added Giglio.

John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy arriving at Love Field in Dallas on November 22, 1962, hours before his assassination.
John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy arriving at Love Field in Dallas on November 22, 1962, hours before his assassination.

“Moreover, his presidency has challenged historians because he served a mere thousand days in office.”

Had he lived, could he have avoided the debacle in Vietnam? That’s just one of the many imponderables left by his untimely death.

“His brief time in power seems to me now to have been filled more with hope and promise than performance,” wrote Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, some 20 years after Dallas.

“But the hope and the promise that he held for America were real, and they have not been approached since his death.”

Despite considerable and persistent criticism from some quarters, Kennedy’s popularity among ordinary Americans never waned.

“I don’t think his reputation ever really declined,” Theodore Sorensen, a close aide to JFK and his favourite speechwriter, told me when I met him in New York some years ago.

“It declined among a certain sector, among a certain number of self-appointed intellectuals, a certain number on the far left who blame him for Vietnam, a certain number of people on the far right who wanted to tarnish his reputation, and a certain number of gossip-mongers.”

But Sorensen, who died in 2010 at the age of 82, maintained that “if a poll had been taken every year for the past 40-odd years asking people which president in the 20th century did they have the most affection for, did they most admire, he would have won every year. Every year — no doubt about that”.

Ben Bradlee concurred. “Kennedy’s reputation stands amazingly high given all the unpleasant revelations about his private life. It’s really quite amazing. I am perhaps typical in this. I feel that some of his behaviour — especially the sharing of a mistress with a gangster — is really unforgivable and unforgivably reckless.

“Yet I somehow have forgiven that because of no permanent damage that liaison did to the country. And all of Kennedy’s virtues and promises override his frailties in my mind.”

JFK with brothers Robert and Ted.
JFK with brothers Robert and Ted.

Sorensen spelled out the abiding interest in JFK. “He had been there in the White House about the same length of time as Gerald Ford and less time than Jimmy Carter. How many books, how many television shows, how many articles do you see about the Ford and Carter presidencies? I can’t tell you how high the interest in Kennedy remains.”

Lest anyone thinks that Sorensen was exaggerating, it is well to remember that a series of Gallup polls over the years consistently confirmed that Kennedy was easily America’s most popular president. In one such poll, two-thirds of the respondents believed that the United States would have been “much different” had he lived.

According to one commentator, these polls sprang from an almost messianic image of Kennedy — one committed to the downtrodden, to racial justice, to facing down the Soviets at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and to infusing the nation with a new spirit.

In this part of the world, Irish people witnessed something of this when photographs of JFK paired with those of Pope John XXIII, another inspirational figure, appeared in many homes.

And not even media concentration in recent years on Kennedy’s shortcoming has blurred that image. Like John XXIII, he represented hope of change and the promise of a better, saner and more humane world.

The idea of a Catholic running for the White House is acceptable nowadays — thanks to JFK. We shouldn’t forget that the issue was strong enough to contribute to Al Smith’s defeat in 1928, and to compel Kennedy to face a panel of sceptical Protestant pastors in 1960.

Kennedy’s visit to Houston in mid-September of that year for his appearance before Baptist pastors would create a new chapter in American presidential history. That appearance was a triumph, defining the role of a modern Catholic leader in a democracy, separating the candidate’s beliefs from certain edicts of the Catholic Church on secular matters, reaffirming the absolute separation of Church and State in America, during much to expunge religious bigotry generally, and even applying the lessons of the monument to the Alamo.

“Side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes and McCafferty and Bailey and Badillo and Carey,” Kennedy told the Baptist gathering.

“No one knows whether they were Catholic or not, for there was no religious test here.”

Albert J Menendez takes up the theme in his book John F Kennedy — Catholic and Humanist.

“Most of the interpreters of the Kennedy era have ignored what I believe to be his most enduring achievement. His election ratified and made credible America’s image of itself as a nation predicated on religious tolerance and liberty.

Looking back at JFK whose death and private life often overshadowed his presidency

Religious movements based on religious prejudice. The Kennedy election and the manner in which he sought to resolve long-standing interfaith and Church-State disputes earn him a place in history.

“His Presidency substantially aided the development of pluralism. By breaking the unwritten law against non-Protestants, he severed the Protestant stranglehold on the White House and made it symbolically the genuine home of all Americans.

“He made it at least conceivable that members of other minority religious groups could aspire to the nation’s highest elective office.

“He illuminated the discussion of Church-State issues and brought them to the fore of public exposure. He proved that a Catholic President could be just as devoted to religious liberty as a non-Catholic, and his ecumenical posture furthered the cause of religious tolerance and understanding in America.”

In a 1986 ABC TV Special, Theodore White, author of The Making of the President (1960), talked about Kennedy in the following terms: “I felt he was a key figure of the 20th century. He was the first Catholic to be elected President, an Irish Catholic.

“It meant that all other subdued ethnic groups who hadn’t yet seized the opportunities of American politics could follow him. He did remarkable things in three short years. And he left work unfinished. If he had gone on until 1968 it might have been one of the three most memorable administrations in American history”.

His was a Presidency rich in promise until he was cut down in Dallas – one consequence of which is that his relatively short time in the White House will always be characterised by a tantalising series of “What if?” questions.

Exceptional man in more ways than one

At just 43, JFK brought youth, style and vigour to the White House and on his presidential visit here in June 1963, writes Dan Buckley

The journalist and historian Theodore White published a famous interview for Life magazine with Jackie Kennedy shortly after her husband’s assassination, in which she said: “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 record. 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.”

Mystical Camelot, from the musical based on the King Arthur legend, became the last — and lasting — image of his presidency. The first was of the promise of a new generation, an image forged at the eastern portico of the United States Capitol in Washington, DC on January 20, 1961.

President John F Kennedy at Collins Barracks, Cork with Lord Mayor Sean Casey and Frank Aiken duringhis Irish visit in 1963.
President John F Kennedy at Collins Barracks, Cork with Lord Mayor Sean Casey and Frank Aiken during

his Irish visit in 1963.

In his presidential inauguration speech, John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke of the torch being ‘passed to a new generation’.

He could hardly have envisaged that his words would reverberate around the world not just during his lifetime but for decades after his death, still serving as a symbol of purpose and hope.

Frequently cited as one of the best speeches ever written, his 14-minute inauguration address exhorted his fellow Americans to: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

That immortal couplet was followed by sparkling phrases and soaring flights of rhetoric, including: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

In the end, he paid the ultimate price, shot down in his prime on Friday, November 22, 1963 as his open-top motorcade travelled through Dallas, Texas.

Had he lived to advanced old age, he would have celebrated his 100th birthday today. Fittingly, it is Memorial Day, a federal holiday in the United States for remembering those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces, which he did, with courage and distinction, during World War II.

There aren’t too many noteable people of the past 100 years who are known almost exclusively by their initials. JFK is the exception but he was an exceptional figure in more ways than one.

The 35th president of the United States was the first and only Catholic to hold that office and there has been only one Catholic presidential nominee among the 28 party nominations since him. That was another JFK — John Forbes Kerry in 2004.

Kennedy was also the youngest to be elected president, succeeding the oldest. Assuming office at the age of 43, his charm, magnetism and good looks helped make him an icon in his lifetime and a hero in death.

The grandson of Irish emigrants remains one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, yet, according to Frank Donatelli, President Ronald Reagan’s White House political director, “the perception of Kennedy is almost purely stylistic.

He was 43 years old 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.

They were old, shrivelled men. In contrast, Kennedy was young, bright and handsome and had the further good fortune of emerging at a time when colour photography and television was becoming widespread in the US. He and his beautiful wife and photogenic family were photographed mostly in colour rather than drab black-and-white, making them the first celebrity couple in the White House.

President John F Kennedy lays a wreath at John Barry Memorial in Wexford during his visit in June 1963. Picture: JFK50Ireland.com
President John F Kennedy lays a wreath at John Barry Memorial in Wexford during his visit in June 1963. Picture: JFK50Ireland.com

He was further blessed by having a wealthy father to fund his political ambitions and a talent for writing. His senior thesis at Harvard university, later published as Why England Slept, was a study of the failure of British political leaders in the 1930s to oppose popular resistance to rearming, leaving the country ill-prepared for World War II.

In 1954, while recovering from back surgery, he wrote Profiles In Courage, a series of essays on the lives of eight US senators whom Kennedy felt had shown great courage under pressure from their parties and their constituents. It won him the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957.

In June 1963, John F Kennedy became the first serving president of the USA to visit Ireland. He came to visit the land of his ancestors while on a European tour, flying to Dublin from Berlin.

During his four-day tour he also visited Cork, Limerick and his ancestral home in Wexford. There were solemn scenes at Arbour Hill where he placed a wreath on the grave of the 1916 leaders, stirring ones when he addressed a joint sitting of the Oireachtas and cheerful, relaxed moments when he shared tea and sandwiches with his cousins in Dunganstown, Co Wexford.

He was very impressed by the ceremonial drill performed by Irish Army cadets at Arbour Hill and asked that a film of it be sent to him. He suggested that a similar ceremonial drill should be introduced at the Arlington National Cemetery.

On the morning after his assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy recalled his enthusiasm for the Irish Army Cadets and at her request a detachment of cadets flew to Washington and again performed their ceremonial drill at the president’s graveside during his burial at Arlington.

Most people old enough can remember where they were on the day of JFK’s assassination. I cannot, but I will never forget the day he came to Cork and his motorcade drove down in all its splendour from the gates of Collin’s Barracks on Military Hill, through St Luke’s, then swinging right down Summherhill, the stately convertible barely able to make the turn.

I was on my father’s shoulder as the entourage crawled by. He lifted me high as the president passed by, with the crowd going wild with excitement. He turned to his left as the car passed St Luke’s church, looking behind and waving. I waved back. It was the nearest I ever got to greatness.

His legacy is mixed. According to Alan Brinkley, most American historians, like him, tend to rate JFK as a good president but not a great one, noteable for as many mistakes as accomplishments during his three years in the White House.

“His first year was a disaster, as he himself acknowledged,” says Brinkley, writing in The Atlantic magazine. “The Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba was only the first in a series of failed efforts to undo Fidel Castro’s regime. His 1961 summit meeting in Vienna with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a humiliating experience. Most of his legislative proposals died on Capitol Hill.”

Yet, Brinkley acknowledges Kennedy’s growth during his short term as president and his extraordinary accomplishments.

“The most important, and most famous, was his adept management of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, widely considered the most perilous moment since World War II. Most of his military advisers — and they were not alone — believed the United States should bomb the missile pads that the Soviet Union was stationing in Cuba.

Kennedy, aware of the danger of escalating the crisis, instead ordered a blockade of Soviet ships. In the end, a peaceful agreement was reached. In the year of his death he also addressed the issue of civil rights with a bill to end racial segregation and proposed health care for the poor.

“Few of these proposals became law in his lifetime,” says Brinkley, “but most of these bills became law after his death — in part because of his successor’s political skill, but also because they seemed like a monument to a martyred president.”

Looking back at JFK whose death and private life often overshadowed his presidency


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