Kennedy’s greatest legacy was ‘hopefulness’, Aldous says

JFK created scale of what is expected of a president which still holds, historian tells summer school

Prof. Richard Aldous  speaking to Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co Wexford. Photograph: Mary Browne

Prof. Richard Aldous speaking to Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co Wexford. Photograph: Mary Browne


The greatest legacy of US president John Kennedy was that “he brought hopefulness to politics”, historian Richard Aldous told the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross this afternoon.

Professor Aldous said the Kennedys were greatly aided in keeping the legacy of the slain president alive through the work of many of the “brilliant minds” who had worked for or observed the “Kennedy White House”.

The sense of what it was like to be inside the white house was created with “power and ability” by people such as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr who wrote “A Thousand Days - John F Kennedy in the White House” and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen , Prof Aldous said.

Prof Aldous is Eugene Meyer Chair at Bard College, New York and is currently writing a biography of Schlesinger who was JFK’s special assistant.

John Kennedy’s personal style in mastering television, dressing elegantly and appearing youthful and energetic had created “the Kennedy scale” for what is expected from a presidential candidate, he said. And this holds true “even 50 years later” said Prof Aldous .

Behind the eloquence and sense that Kennedy was a cultured man who listened to classical music, was a widespread belief in the president’s ability to make decisions - particularly after the Cuban missile crisis, he said.

But what had really mattered was John Kennedy’s “temperament”, his ability to personify “hopefulness”, he said. This was something the professor suggested, was only seen in a few presidents, including Roosevelt and Reagan.

The assassination of Kennedy and the iconic image of a dignified Jackie Kennedy standing in a blood-stained dress on board Air Force One, as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the next US president, cemented a sense of duty to America, beyond the needs of family.

The years after his death were a high point for the Kennedy legacy when JFK was “almost a saint” and Prof Aldous said the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, had led to Schlesinger proclaiming that what had occurred in that decade was the “murder of hope”.

Prof Aldous said Kennedy’s reputation diminished somewhat with the publication of details of his private life, and the publication by journalist Seymour Hersh of his book The Dark Side of Camelot”.

He said a middle ground assessment of Kennedy’s legacy would still see that his style was not without substance but “his greatest legacy was that he brought hopefulness to politics”.