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."
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.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seemed impetuous, even unstable, as he shut down the Paris summit in May 1960 after Soviet defenses downed a U-2 spy plane and banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations. Kennedy's show of weakness and indecision in the Bay of Pigs invasion--when he refused to disapprove a refugee invasion of Castro's Cuba but also refused to give it the military support it needed to succeed--didn't help. Khrushchev bullied him at the June 1961 Vienna summit and threatened to close down allied access to West Berlin, which could have triggered nuclear war. The threat eased when the Communists built the Berlin Wall in August 1961. But when the Soviets secretly shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, Kennedy felt he must respond and in October declared a "quarantine" of the island. After days of tension, in which the superpowers came closer to nuclear war than at any other time before or since, Khrushchev ordered ships containing Soviet warheads to turn back in return for secret promises to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and a renunciation of plans to invade Cuba. In June 1963, in a speech at American University, Kennedy proclaimed a new era of what would come to be known as detente.
The sense of relief was audible in the popular culture. Movies like Fail Safe and Seven Days in May, which took seriously the possibility of nuclear war and military crisis (just as Kennedy himself did), were replaced within a few years by The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, which took them not seriously at all.
The intervention issue. Kennedy's America remembered that Americans had fought to save Korea from Communists and rued that it had lost China to them. Kennedy himself was fascinated by guerrilla warfare; he created the Green Berets and prepared for brush-fire wars to prevent Communist advance. The president told reporter James Reston that the nation had to demonstrate its firmness after the Vienna summit and the only place to do it was Vietnam. He sent 15,000 troops to South Vietnam. Then, over an August weekend in 1963, his government set into motion the October coup against Ngo Dinh Diem that killed Diem and made South Vietnam an American responsibility. Many Kennedy admirers have argued that he would have withdrawn U.S. forces after the 1964 election, but little in his words or deeds supports that: Kennedy was the first hawk, not the first dove.
The civil rights issue. Back home, Kennedy, like most Americans, disliked the system of legally enforced racial segregation in the South. But he wanted to change it slowly and regarded civil rights efforts like the freedom rides of the early 1960s as a political nuisance. He was acutely conscious that no Democrat had been elected without Southern electoral votes, and he calculated, correctly, that strong support of civil rights would cost him the Deep South. So he tried to accommodate governors of those states when federal courts ordered them to desegregate public universities; he met Martin Luther King Jr. only secretly at the White House, and he never considered appearing at the March on Washington in August 1963. For years, he delayed signing a promised order desegregating public-housing units.
But like no previous president, Kennedy was alert to the impact of the new medium of television. For the first time, technology was allowing TV to show pictures of events in every corner of the nation the day they occurred. So, in May 1963, most Americans found themselves watching the police dogs and fire hoses Police Commissioner Bull Connor of Birmingham, Ala., was sending against King's peaceful civil rights demonstrators. Segregation was no longer distant and abstract; it was vivid, close at hand and unacceptably brutal. Kennedy was pressed to support a civil rights bill by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who advised it could pass Congress and would be accepted in the South, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who said it was morally necessary. The president agreed. He went on television, ad-libbing in the rocking chair he used for his bad back. The principle in question, he declared, "is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."
Kennedy's civil rights bill was on its way toward passage when he died. The country was forever changed. Reluctantly, only after prodding by others, Kennedy helped to end a system of segregation that today few Americans would defend.
The privacy issue. Kennedy harbored very few illusions. He well knew how much of his good fortune was owed to others--including his Machiavellian father. Yet he achieved his success in a country that loved its illusions, that yearned to believe in its leaders and great institutions, that happily suspended disbelief in the great spectacles of politics and entertainment.
From his years in Hollywood, Joseph Kennedy knew how gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper catered to a public that wanted to see its movie stars as ordinary family people, despite their divorces and the gaudy glamour of their lifestyles. Similarly, political reporters suppressed any evidence of departure from middle-class mores, never investigating or reporting on politicians' drunkenness or dalliance. John Kennedy could flaunt his family's wealth and glamour and yet be so confident that his sexual affairs would never be made public that he greatly enjoyed Marilyn Monroe, the nation's most sultry movie star and evidently one of his paramours, singing "Happy Birthday" to him in Madison Square Garden in 1962.
Americans understood their nation was not perfect. But they cherished a version of history that showed how the country was specially blessed, with a special mission to promote freedom and democracy in the world. They also trusted their institutions. More than 70 percent in Kennedy's time thought the federal government would do what is right most of the time or always; just 29 percent felt the same by 1992. Americans in the early 1960s found it easy to regard the cool and cynical John Kennedy as warm and idealistic, to overlook his mistakes and appreciate his successes, to give him the highest job ratings of any president, despite a performance that even his admirers admit had important flaws. At the time, he seemed the latest in a line of great leaders who had come forward from odd corners of the country to lead it to victory in time of crisis.
Kennedy's presidency thus seemed to follow a familiar American pattern. But his death made no sense at all. Americans had seen their country led to victory in two terrible wars by leaders of great genius, who, drained of energy by their efforts, were struck down just at the moment of victory. There was Abraham Lincoln a century before and Franklin Roosevelt within living memory.
By contrast, John Kennedy's death in November 1963 seemed utterly dissonant. He died not at the moment of triumph but in the middle of battle. He seemed not drained of life but young and vital--killed by an odd loner or, some thought, a sinister conspiracy. It was the first of many shocking events of the 1960s--urban riots and campus rebellions, defeats in war, the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy--that made it seem that all the old rules no longer applied and every source of order had vanished.
Kennedy, often incidentally or against his inclinations, transformed the country that elected him. It had lived with racial segregation and class-warfare politics, in fear of nuclear holocaust and mistrust of differing creeds--but it was also confident of its own goodness and the worthiness of its great institutions. Only in that older America could John Kennedy, a Catholic Democrat preoccupied with foreign policy and willing to make accommodations with segregationists, have been elected. Only Kennedy could have changed that nation so thoroughly, for the better while he lived and for the worse by the way he died.