The Lost World of John Kennedy

The country that elected him, watched him govern and mourned his death was a very different America .

By Michael Barone and Katia Hetter

Thirty years after his death, John F. Kennedy is fading from focus. Once, all Americans could remember where they were when they heard the awful news on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. But today the majority of Americans have no memory of 1963 at all. Kennedy remains the nation's most admired president, and the Kennedy family has remained at the center of politics like none other--not the Adamses, not the Roosevelts. Yet, today, Kennedy's magic and the era he inhabited are difficult to recall.

Part of the difference between then and now involves the public's emotional connection to its leaders. In this embittered and cynical time, it is almost impossible to conjure the public infatuation with Kennedy's charm: No other political leader, not even Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, has been such a master of rapid repartee and self-deprecating humor. How did he become a hero in World War II as captain of the PT-109? "They sank my boat." Was his multimillionaire father spending too much on his campaigns? "Don't buy a single vote more than necessary," he read from a mock telegram. "I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."

Also magic was his self-assurance. As a 43-year-old senator, he effortlessly gained the psychological upper hand over the vice president of the United States in televised debates. As president, Kennedy had an air of command that kept his job rating at an average of 71 percent. He was an exotic figure to most Americans: a young veteran of World War II when the White House had been held for 28 years by men born in the last part of the 19th century; a speaker with a butterscotch-thick Boston accent, thrusting his hands in his suit pockets like an English lord in a country whose favorite entertainment at the time was television Westerns; a Roman Catholic in a nation over two-thirds non-Catholic.

Today, it is not just Kennedy but the America that elected and then mourned him that is unfamiliar. Historian Daniel Boorstin's first book, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, explained the third president by trying to "recapture" a vanished "Jeffersonian world of ideas." Three decades later, Kennedy's America is equally distant. And it is "lost" to us in some measure because of the changes that took place as a result of the way he was elected, the way he governed and the way he died.

The religion issue. For starters, the social divisions in the country were differently arrayed in many respects than they are now. Kennedy's Catholicism was a dominant issue in his campaign. Catholic Americans in 1960 lived almost in a nation apart. The descendants of Irish, German, Italian and Polish immigrants were still concentrated in industrial cities. They ate fish on Friday and attended mass every Sunday, shunned birth control and boasted of large families and sent their children to schools run by celibate priests and nuns. In this Catholic America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was an aristocrat, grandson of the mayor of Boston, son of one of the richest Catholics in America. In 1916, the year before JFK was born, his grandfather John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald ran for senator against the Yankee Protestant Henry Cabot Lodge and lost. Exit polls, had they existed, surely would have shown 80 percent of Catholics for Fitzgerald and 70 percent of Protestants for Lodge. Thirty-six years later, when Honey Fitz's grandson John Kennedy ran for the Senate, not much had changed. The Catholic-Protestant split was still strong, though a shrewder campaign and a good portion of Joseph Kennedy's money helped JFK beat Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

This religious split had roots in 17th-century religious wars. Many Protestants remembered that America was founded by settlers trying to gain their liberties from Catholic kings, and many liberals feared what they considered an "authoritarian minded" Catholic hierarchy. Anti-Catholic voters cost Al Smith several Southern and border states in the 1928 presidential election against Republican Herbert Hoover, but Smith also carried some heavily Catholic big cities that had previously been Republican. As the nation's Catholic percentage slowly rose, Joseph Kennedy noticed. "This country is not a private preserve for Protestants," he told his son John in 1956. "There's a whole new generation out there, and it's filled with the sons and daughters of immigrants and those people are going to be mighty proud that one of their own is running for president. And that pride will be your spur, it will give your campaign an intensity we've never seen in public life."