Kennedy's Carefully Crafted Image Belied the Truth

President portrayed a high-brow, athletic image but the reality was different.

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The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination is Friday. This is one of a series of blogs in which I analyze key aspects of the Kennedy era and assess what they mean for us today.

President John F. Kennedy was the youngest person elected president of the United States. He was 43 years and 7 months old when he took office in January 1961. Only President Theodore Roosevelt was younger at 42 years and 10 months. (TR, as vice president, succeeded to the nation's highest office after President William McKinley was murdered in 1901.)

Kennedy made his youth into a huge asset. He argued that the nation needed to re-energize itself – to get moving again – after eight years of steady but unexciting presidential leadership under the elderly Dwight Eisenhower, one of America's top generals during World War II. And Kennedy set about doing this in a variety of ways.

[SPECIAL REPORT: JFK, 50 Years Later]

Much of what he did was designed to create an image of vigor, glamor and fresh thinking. He presided over the creation of the Peace Corps and its domestic equivalent, VISTA. His goal was to give young people an opportunity to spend time in public service – a natural progression from Kennedy's resonant call in his inaugural address of January 1961 to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Then Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., and his fiancee Jacqueline Bouvier prepare a boat for sailing on June 27, 1953, at Hyannis, Mass. (AP)
Then Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., and his fiancee Jacqueline Bouvier prepare a boat for sailing on June 27, 1953, at Hyannis, Mass. (AP)

He emphasized the need for physical fitness. He and his wife Jacqueline brought glamor to the White House with her glowing sense of fashion and style, and their hosting a number of famous classical musicians and other entertainers at the White House.

Privately, much of this was a mirage. Kennedy was no fan of classical music (even though his wife was), yet he wanted Americans to think he was high brow. And the president was hardly in robust, vigorous health. He suffered from a variety of serious ailments, including Addison's Disease, chronic and severe back pain and gastrointestinal problems.

[PHOTOS: JFK Assassination: 50 Years Later]

His staff and friends kept all this secret, as they did with his womanizing, which contradicted his self-styled image as a family man.

It's doubtful that a president could get away with such flagrant hypocrisies in today's scandal-fueled popular culture and super-competitive news environment where everything seems to be fair game. But Kennedy thrived amid the more subdued social norms of his time, when Americans were more optimistic and trusting of their leaders than they are today.

More News:

  • Where Were You When JFK Was Assassinated?
  • How John F. Kennedy's Assassination Changed Television Forever
  • After JFK: How the Secret Service Has Changed
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.