A leader of style and substance
It was his brother who was groomed for the White House but bravery, composure and an easy charm that captivated audiences made ‘Jack’ the perfect candidate
John F Kennedy showed grace under fire throughout his time in the White House
Popular culture often provides a good barometer of where reputation stands. John F Kennedy, it seems, is a case of mercury falling.
In the recent NBC TV series, Smash – a backstage soap about a Broadway musical centred on Marilyn Monroe – President Kennedy features as a ruthless, cold-hearted, sex-obsessed predator. This unflattering characterisation is based on revelations over the last 20 years or so by writers such as Seymour Hersh about “the dark side” of the Kennedys. Yet despite that exposé, something still remains in the assessment made by Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee in the days immediately after JFK’s assassination that “history will judge him well – for his wisdom and his compassion and his grace.”
The 35th president of the United States was born John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the suburbs of Boston on 29 May 1917 to Irish-American parents, Joseph P Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. The family traced its ancestry back to many parts of Ireland, including counties Wexford, Limerick, Cavan and Cork.
Rose’s father, John “HoneyFitz” Fitzgerald, was a kind of prototype for his grandson, both in becoming the first Catholic mayor of Boston in 1906 and as a notorious womaniser.
While the 1929 Wall Street Crash claimed many fortunes, Joseph P Kennedy’s was one that survived. By putting his money at the disposal of Franklin D Roosevelt’s presidential campaigns in 1932 and 1936, Kennedy achieved the political access that he had long craved. In 1938, he asked to be sent to London as ambassador. FDR was happy to oblige, keen to get a man he considered reptilian as far away from Washington as possible.
The ambassador never hid that he wanted to make his son president, but it was his eldest boy, Joe jnr, on whose shoulders his hopes rested. His second son “Jack” enjoyed a more relaxed youth than his driven older brother. He developed an easy charm and humour to complement his skinny good looks. His Harvard thesis, published in 1940 as Why England Slept, showed that he had promise as a political writer. Of the four Kennedy boys, he seemed to combine many of their better attributes, being brighter than Teddy, less highly strung than Bobby, and more tolerant than Joe jnr.
Jack was also brave. When war came, he enlisted in the US Navy despite an existing back problem, and distinguished himself when a torpedo craft under his command (PT-109) was rammed by a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands in 1943. Kennedy led the nine surviving crew members back to safety after five nights behind enemy lines. When the story was written up the following year in the New Yorker, Kennedy became a public war hero.
That year was also the moment Jack became the subject of the family’s ambition. When Joe jnr was killed in action, his father emerged from deep mourning to announce that Jack was going to become president to honour the memory of his dead brother. In truth, few thought he was up to it. Jack had been sickly all his life, and was now debilitated by the onset of Addison’s disease and the chronic back condition worsened by the PT-109 incident.
Yet when the Kennedys launched Jack’s campaign for a congressional seat in 1946, he responded to the demands of electioneering with great physical courage and no little political skill. It was the first outing for the star power, matched by Joe’s millions, that would see him elected successively to the House of Representatives, the Senate and finally, in 1960, the White House. Undoubtedly there were voting irregularities along the way, not least in Chicago during the presidential election campaign, but JFK passed these off with characteristic humour. “I have just received the following telegram from my generous father,” he joked. “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’m not going to pay for a landslide.” His presidential opponent, Richard M Nixon, who himself knew a thing or two about dirty politics, did not bother to contest the election result, recognising that his own party was as likely to be implicated in ballot rigging as the Democrats.
President Kennedy was only in the Oval Office for 34 months before he was assassinated. Some have questioned whether his already deteriorating physical condition would have enabled him to see out two full terms.
Certainly illness did affect Kennedy’s performance and judgement, including at the 1961 Vienna conference, when humiliation by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, coincided with a period of extreme, agonising back pain.
In such incidences, Kennedy was often pumped full with prescription drugs, and latterly with special vitamin shots from Max “Dr Feelgood” Jacobson that were almost certainly laced with methamphetamine.
Sexual addiction was also rampant at the White House. Revelations continue to emerge about the many hundreds of White House “conquests” Kennedy enjoyed, which included prostitutes and mafia “molls”, film stars and celebrities, as well as daughters of the upper class and the wives of his friends.
With such a tangled back story, it might be difficult to imagine that Kennedy had the character to be a competent president, let alone a great one. Yet his “thousand days in the White House” still rank as one of the most assured performances in office by any modern president.
Kennedy was the first president of the mass television age. He was brilliant at understanding how to project both himself and the power and dignity of his office for the new medium, not just for a domestic audience but also for a global one. In the decades subsequent to his death, the onscreen Kennedy still seems contemporary and fresh. He remains the benchmark for how we imagine a commanding and graceful president to look.
If le style, c’est l’homme, then Kennedy certainly had the intellectual confidence to match his easy manner. Although JFK kept ultra-loyalists such as his brother, Bobby, close to hand, his administration was defined by its quality and breadth. Kennedy brought in “the best and the brightest” from business, academia and public life. Old hands such as Dean Acheson and William Averell Harriman became éminences grises. Kennedy relished their presence, welcomed contrasting opinions, and had the knack of listening to advice without being intimidated by it. “You can’t beat brains,” he liked to say.
Neither style nor an impressive team would have mattered had Kennedy not been endowed with the rare presidential temperament that he shares with FDR, Eisenhower and Reagan. All four had an engaged serenity that manifested itself particularly at times of extreme crisis. Each of them, while flawed in their different ways, was enhanced rather than diminished by the presidency.
Grace under fire was a quality that John F Kennedy demonstrated throughout his thousand days in the White House, even at moments of failure such as the Bay of Pigs. Like every president, his leadership was imperfect and uneven. Certainly JFK the man was a contradiction. Yet none of the four presidents who followed – Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter – showed anything approaching his public grace or calibre.
“Farewell to the Sixties, the worst and saddest decade of one’s life,” the historian and special assistant to President Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, wrote in his diary at the end of 1969: “The decade of the murder of hope.”
Richard Aldous teaches history at Bard College in the United States. His numerous books include Reagan and Thatcher and Great Irish Speeches, which features John F Kennedy’s address to a joint assembly of the Houses of the Oireachtas.