The Lost World of John Kennedy

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

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And so it did. Kennedy's support from Catholics made him a front-runner in polls before he declared. On the campaign trail, he was cheered by nuns and Catholic schoolchildren and greeted by heavily Catholic crowds that waited hours to throng him, like one in Waterbury, Conn., till 3 o'clock in the morning. But suspicions among Protestants remained. Kennedy had to win primaries in mostly Protestant Wisconsin and almost entirely Protestant West Virginia before the big-city bosses--almost all of them Catholic--would back him. In the fall, popular Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale questioned the loyalty of Catholics. In Houston, Kennedy faced down 300 Protestant ministers and assured them he would resign the presidency if he found any conflict between his public duties and religious faith.

But religion was still a critical issue. Bare majorities of Protestants and voters over 50 said they were willing to vote for a Catholic. Religious fears as well as enthusiasms swelled 1960 voter turnout to the highest levels since 1908, 64 percent of those eligible, compared with 55 percent in 1992. Kennedy won 78 percent of Catholics' votes but only 38 percent of Protestants'.

For many Catholics, Kennedy's victory was a symbol of their full acceptance. For all Americans, it narrowed the rift between Catholic and Protestant. Catholic rites, especially in the tragic majesty of the president's funeral, became familiar to all, even as American Catholics, influenced by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, began abandoning traits and customs--from eating fish on Fridays to having large families--that had once distinguished them from their fellow citizens.

The leadership issue. Kennedy's government, too, had a different role in the nation's life and in people's hearts than government has today. As a Democrat, he benefited from the popularity of government spending programs and by association with labor unions, which were near their peak enrollment--31 percent of the work force. Kennedy kicked off his 1960 fall campaign with a Labor Day rally before over 40,000 in the great auto-factory metropolis of Detroit; he named the United Steelworkers' lawyer as his labor secretary; he reaped political profit from the heavy-handed tactics, including predawn FBI interrogations, he used to roll back the big steel companies' price increases in April 1962.

Kennedy shared the view of Keynesian economists and CIA analysts that the Soviet Union was growing faster than the United States and would dwarf the U.S. gross national product by the year 2000 and that socialist planning was more productive than market capitalism. But his own major economic policies proved just the opposite. The free-trade bill, the major domestic achievement of his first two years, and the Keynesian tax cut he promised in 1962 and proposed in '63 led to six years of robust economic growth. In Kennedy's phrase, "A rising tide lifts all the boats": Sons and daughters of factory workers were going to college and getting white-collar jobs; renters were using federal housing and veterans' programs to become homeowners; kids who had grown up playing in city streets were giving their kids green lawns in the suburbs.

The upward trajectory of the young people of the Kennedy years was obvious. Statistically, young people, responding to the pill and prosperity, were waiting longer to get married and were more likely to go to college. The baby boom ended in 1962, and the teenage music of the early 1960s--songs like "Soldier Boy," "Uptown" and "Navy Blue," geared to the experiences of boys who went into military service and girls who got married soon after high school--was replaced just after the Kennedy years with the British invasion and psychedelic rock more appealing to the collegebound. As young people went upscale, class-warfare economic politics became obsolete.

The bomb issue. Overhanging everything when Kennedy became president was the threat of nuclear war. Schoolchildren huddled under their desks in regular air-raid drills, and homeowners were urged to build backyard shelters to withstand nuclear attack. Kennedy's inaugural speech committed the nation to "pay any price, bear any burden," in a "long twilight struggle"; only two words referred to domestic policy. They were "at home." Candidate Kennedy charged the United States was on the wrong end of a "missile gap" and called for more defense spending; in office, he quickly found that the United States was far ahead in missiles and warheads but stepped up spending nevertheless.