Sunday July 21st 2024


Courageous, intelligent, inspirational, the martyred 35th President
of the United States is remembered by Midwesterners who knew him.
A look at what lessons his life and his Presidency hold for us now.

Few American Presidents have captured the fascination of the world as did John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Forty-two years ago this November after his death, it is still hard to view his life and Presidency objectively, and a kind of “mystique” (some would call it “glamor”) clings to his name. John Kennedy was known for his charisma, his brilliance and facile wit, his social idealism, courage and even heroism. He was widely loved and admired (an immensely popular world-figure rather than simply an American leader). His charismatic personality threw a rosy veil over the actualities of his brief 1,000 days in office, and offered, instead, the evocative and inspiring image of “Camelot” reborn — the Arthurian Romance transplanted to the White House.

Seldom before, in a torn and divided world, had a political leader so ably succeeded in kindling people’s hopes for a brighter future. Today, a generation after he died, politicians of both parties still invoke his name as a talisman.

Kennedy took office during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. The Cold War between democracy and communism was intensifying, and the tension between the world’s two nuclear powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, was such that many Americans even built bomb shelters in their homes. In our cities, racial tension was rising. Growing numbers of blacks had begun to demonstrate for equal treatment under the law, and white segregationists promised to deny these rights, resorting to violence.

From the first moments of his Presidency, Kennedy evoked a sense of security and a spirit of idealism which reassured Americans of their nation’s strengths and inspired them to serve their country and the world. From his personal experience, he knew the horrors of war and kept us largely at peace during the coldest days of the Cold War.

Though it is fashionable today in certain political circles and amongst historical revisionists to dismiss John Kennedy as more image than substance, secret White House recordings that have been recently released dramatically refute this caricature of him. In more than 300 tapes of Kennedy’s meetings, 280 phone conversations and a number of recordings dictated by the late President for his memoirs, he emerges as a man of surprising gravitas, who was firmly in command, who was invariably a step ahead of everybody in the room. Kennedy was coolly analytical and incisive, wasn’t afraid to challenge the advice he was getting — or even wholly disregard it — had a keenly developed sense of history and a vision for tomorrow, was an idealist but political pragmatist. He skillfully guided his countrymen through treacherous terrain where the simplest misstep could have provoked a nuclear exchange with Russia. He set priorities that were worthy of a great nation, and displayed qualities of leadership and even personal courage that have been sorely lacking in the Oval Office in recent times.

Of Irish descent, Jack Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. His parents, Joseph and Rose, who then occupied a rather modest home, wanted their eight children to have broad exposure to the world, an understanding of what it was like, and the diverse experiences it offered. As Joe Kennedy’s wealth and political fortunes increased, the children were able to pursue what Rose described as “learning experiences.” She also kindled in young John an early interest in history, by taking him to Plymouth Rock and the Old North Church. Growing up in the bustling Kennedy household meant much was expected of him, a competitive streak was fostered in all the kids, and dinner table discussions about current events were routinely encouraged among family members. Outsiders were frequently invited into the home to share their various points of view.

Jack attended the London School of Economics for a year, and later Harvard, where he was a lackluster student, graduating in 1940. He meandered through pre-war Europe, then joined the Navy, even though he could easily have avoided service due to his multitudinous illnesses, which afflicted him throughout his life. Though he was already a millionaire heir, society figure, and ambassador’s son, Kennedy was assigned the dangerous mission of commanding a patrol boat, pt-109, in the Pacific. On the moonless night of Aug. 1, 1943, a Japanese destroyer appeared out of nowhere and collided with his boat, killing two of his men and sending 26-year-old skipper John f. Kennedy into fiery waters to save his crew. Despite a back injury, he swam five miles to a desserted island, pulling an injured crewman with a rope clenched in his teeth. The following days saw several fearless attempts to be rescued. The men were weary with starvation and thirst, when they were eventually saved a week later by Solomon Islanders loyal to the Allies.

Displaying his notorious insouciance at this heroism, Kennedy passed it off: “It was easy [to become a hero]. They cut my pt boat in half.”

After the death of his older brother, Joe, in World War II, his father’s ambitions fell upon him, and he lived out those expectations through a drive for political prominence.

After the war, Jack toured post-war Europe at age 28 as a reporter for Hearst newspapers. While waging a successful campaign as the Democratic nominee for Congress from Boston in 1946,  he refused to allow himself to be portrayed as a war hero, though he surely was one. In speaking to a group of Gold Star Mothers, he said only that he understood what they were going through, because his Mother also had lost a son in the war.

John Kennedy advanced in 1953 to the u.s. Senate and married the glamorous Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12th of that year. In 1955, while recuperating from a back operation, he wrote “Profiles in Courge,” winning the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Hugh Sidey of Greenfield, Iowa, the famed  Time magazine correspondent, says “I remember way back in the Senate, [Kennedy’s] mind leaped from issue to issue. Here was a man on the rackets committee, on the foreign affairs committee. Here was a man who was concerned with nuclear war. He was a fellow who developed a plan for economic development for New England, and helped implement a lot of it. Here was a man who began to dabble in civil rights, race relations, the whole matter of poverty, tax reform.”

He pondered the qualities of leadership and was concerned with “How do you move people? He studied Churchill, DeGaulle, he read all the exchanges between Eisenhower and Kruschev.  He had a great curiosity and as he went through that time, he began to get ready for the campaign. No doubt about what he was going to do. None of this coyness.”

Hugh Sidey also thinks back to being on the campaign trail with JFK. “I remember we flew into Iowa in the primary season,” Hugh reflects.“He called me up on the Caroline [campaign plane] and he said ‘tell me about Iowa. This is your home. Do you like it? I don’t understand it. I know the beach. I know the sea. But what do Iowans do? Do they make much money? Do you enjoy going home to your little town?’ And then he looked out the cabin windows and he said ‘I remember Robert Frost’s poem when he saw Iowa’s black soil, that he thought it was just too good to plant crops on, and feed the crops to animals, that they ought to just eat it directly, it was such great soil.’ He remembered something else that Robert Frost had written, that he’d put a pitchfork in Iowa’s soil and it would grow ears automatically, it was so rich. But it was poetry. He had that in him. He wanted to feel it and see it. And I saw that throughout the campaign, and I’ve always felt that helped a good deal.”

Sidey says that Kennedy “was a very romantic person, and he elevated his campaign rhetoric. Almost every little town we went into, he asked for a historical reference, so he could quote about something that happened in that area. He had a sense of the country. He learned about it, he was a quick learner. He read about it. He was fascinated with the nation.”

But for all the lofty ideals he observed in Jack Kennedy, Hugh Sidey also saw the “theater.” “One day he discussed with me how he ought to wave,” Hugh laughs. “Big problem. Nobody knew. He said ‘I can’t do Ike,’ (which was two hands up); and then he said ‘have you seen Nixon’s floppy wrists?’ He talked about the upraised fist, but somebody else had used that. Well out of it came that short, choppy gesture with a firm wrist, and he used that all the campaign. I think it was quite natural to him. But theater was terribly important to him — how he looked, how he came across, how he spoke.”

John Kennedy was  the ultimate campaigner. Sidey marvels. “[Var-ious books have reported on] his bad health. Listen, let me tell you, if it was bad, it was twice as good as mine. It was the most energetic campaign, the most organized. If he was in pain, he didn’t show it. He campaigned from dawn to night. I literally lost five pounds while I was on the Kennedy campaign because we didn’t eat and we didn’t sleep. And I gained five pounds on the Nixon campaign, because he rested. In the campaign period, I saw a man who was intensely curious about this country. Now I can’t say that about many candidates these days.”

In his debates with Richard Nixon, JFK dispelled fears among some voters that in being so youthful, he was not up to the challenges of the Presidency.
A Clarion Call

Every literate American recalls the essence of the words John Kennedy spoke on the steps of the u.s. Capitol that cold morning of Jan. 20, 1961 when he was sworn in as President.  He challenged his countrymen: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Ernest Hemingway, a native Illinoisan, watched the inauguration on a hallway television at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. (where he was on a suicide watch) and then roused himself long enough to write a brief note: “It is a good thing to have a brave man as our President in times as tough as these for our country and the world.” Lewis Mumford called JFK’s speech “a fresh wind from the high slopes of an older America.” The New York Times’ James Reston enthused that “the evangelical and transcendental spirit of America has not been better expressed since Woodrow Wilson and maybe not even since Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
Despite Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric, for years various biographers have singled out Kennedy’s assistant Ted Sorenson, a Nebraska native, as the chief author of the inaugural address — a task he supposedly accomplished in collaboration with various advisers. But Thurston Clarke, author of “The Inauguration of John f. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America,” debunks this myth. Using previously unavailable documentation, Clarke shows that Kennedy wrote his own speech.

Luckily for history, Kennedy’s longtime secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, made a fetish of retrieving crumpled foolscap from the trash cans beneath her boss’ numerous desks (a habit JFK found exasperating). Using Lincoln’s extensive hoard of documents, Clarke traces the genesis of Kennedy’s speech to a draft he dictated during a flight from Washington to Palm Beach, ten days before the inauguration. What is more, Clarke deftly demonstrates that Sorenson’s own contributions to the speech — in the form of one memo drafted before Ken-nedy’s dictation and several slight revisions thereafter — were merely an amalgam of ideas and themes Kennedy himself had originated extemporaneously on the stump during the late campaign. In the end, Sorenson comes off as what he’s always claimed to be: not Kennedy’s ghostwriter, but his scribe. And the President himself? He emerges as a skilled, eloquent and inspired craftsman. As Clarke writes: “Kennedy was more than the ‘principal architect’ of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too.”

Overcame obstacles
Though in distressing physical pain from his back problems, JFK — who was the second-youngest President in U.S. history — projected a remarkably youthful vitality and “vigah.” He emphasized physical fitness, and his appeal to the younger generation was immense.

John Kennedy was the first u.s. Pre-sident born in the 20th century, the first of the Catholic faith, the first to grasp the power of television and use it with skill and force, the first to reach out to space, the first to face with equanimity the age of mutually assured nuclear destruction.

It seems that Kennedy was never at a loss for inspiration, and that his greatest ideas, such as the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, extensive civil rights legislation, and the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, were all part of a process of easing national and world tensions.

The power, scope and assertiveness of Kennedy’s brilliant mind were also seen in both his sparkling eloquence and ready wit.  He was said to be able to read at a phenomenally rapid rate, a page at a time, 1,200 words per minute. Even in the Presidency he consumed ten or 12 books a week. A newsstand vendor near the White House reported his business had gone up 400%, due to all the magazines and papers that JFK wanted.

He once told Hugh Sidey that “Melbourne” was his favorite book. Sidey explains, “[It’s] the story of William Lamb, the prime minister under Queen Victoria. Read it. It tells you more about John Kennedy than any book I’ve ever read, because it’s about these young aristocrats, at the prime of British empire. They served their nation, they were in the army, in Parliament, and on the weekends they went out and had their pleasures. And you know what the Victorian pleasures of those years were in the country estates. It was Kennedy’s profile. I think the way he wanted to [live].”

Yet it seemed to be his underlying “mission” to unite the American people in support of its highest ideals, to remove the tarnish from the practice of government, and re-emphasize the soul-principles upon which this nation was founded. In his own character, the contrast between the ideal and the actual was sometimes stark, but those who loved him appreciated the opportunity to think about their leader and their own possibilities in more beautiful and cultured terms. And this, JFK and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, made possible.

An Ohio Historian Remembers
One Midwestener who  knew Jack Kennedy from his earliest days was Pulitzer prize-winning historian and author Arthur Schlesinger from Columbus, Ohio. He remembers, “his curiosity was unlimited. The restless thrust of his mind never abated. He not-iced everything, responded to everything, forgot nothing.
“He took life seriously, but never himself. He cared deeply, but his passion was understatement. No heart ever appeared on his sleeve, though only the unaware could conclude that this meant that there was no heart at all.”

Kennedy’s economic programs launched the country on the longest sustained expansion since World War ii. He laid plans for a massive assault on deprivation and poverty. He embraced the com-mon laborer and helped farmers achieve a better income.  He addressed job re-training and chronic unemployment, and proposed a far-reaching revision of public welfare laws.

Schlesinger reflected, “He could never understand the complacent rich who, so long as they had everything they needed for themselves, were content to starve schools, medical services and social services for their less fortunate fellow citizens.” He visited Appalachia.

Kennedy brought aid to middle in-come families and mass transit, increased urban renewal and elderly housing. He created the National Seashore Parks. He helped protect families against u-tested and ineffective drugs, funded higher education classrooms, endowed the arts, and launched the first major national drive against mental illness and mental retardation. He put the power of the federal government on the side of civil rights when racial tensions escalated into violence in the South.

Esteemed former cbs anchorman Walter Cronkite, a Missouri native, told Midwest Today that “I think that he had some very substantial, innovative and imaginative ideas about the future of the country. He unfortunately displayed to his colleagues a certain arrogance and dismayed a lot of the people to whom he needed to appeal for support. And that’s the Congress. He didn’t have time in his short ever bring them around to the point where he’s got much of a legislative record to survive him.”

In the foreign policy realm, he learned a bitter lesson early in his term. Jfk had given tacit approval to a covert plan  involving Cuban exiles and an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster. Kennedy did not shirk responsibility, and at a press conference acknowledged his mistakes. The President and his brother, Bobby, the Attorney General, also quietly raised private funds to secure the release of men captured during the abortive invasion.

White House tapes show, when facing crises over Berlin and Cuba, he was cool, analytical and restrained — leading this country with a firm hand and sound judgment through very dangerous times. All his faculties of judgment and leadership would be tested in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. American reconnaissance had detected that the Soviets had moved nuclear missiles into Cuba, targeting the U.S. A wrong move at any point could provoke nuclear war. Kennedy resisted the clamor by certain members of Congress and the Joint Chiefs for a pre-emptive air strike. He challenged the advice he was getting, and asked probing questions. He impressively defused the crisis and the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

His grasp of world affairs could also be seen in his frequent press conferences, which were invariably punctuated with his quick humor and even humility.
Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas from Michigan told Midwest Today that “He knew his time was short. I think he definitely had a sense of a rendezvous with destiny. Whenever young people would come to the White House, he would urge them to go into public service, give something back to their country. You always had a sense of uplift.”

Kennedy’s trademark rocking chair in the Oval office symbolized a man of contemplation. His glamourous wife, Jackie, and two children — Caroline and “John-John” — were picture-perfect.

But Kennedy’s secretive extramarital affairs — with women ranging from secretaries to Hollywood starlets —  were numerous, and even risky. There are also troubling questions about how members of organized crime may have helped in jfk’s election campaign even though his brother Bobby later pursued aggressive prosecution of crime figures.

A Man of Peace
Kennedy was increasingly determined to resist the mounting pressure for an overt American military response in Vietnam, turning down his generals who wanted him to send the bombers and troops. Despite considerable concern about “losing Vietnam” from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Mc-Namara, Kennedy’s actions and statements toward the end of his Presidency are suggestive of a carefully managed stand-down from the sort of involvement that occurred under his successor, LBJ.

Walter Cronkite, who had done a Hyannis Port interview with JFK in the Summer of 1963, told Midwest Today that “I think he was very disgusted with the situation by that point — the failure of the Vietnamese governments to show any inclinations toward creating a democracy.” Tapes of White House conversations on October 2, 1963 show Kennedy beginning the process to withdraw American troops from Vietnam before the end of that year. He signed off on the idea of reducing the exposure of American forces to guerilla combat situations. On Oct. 11, 1963, he directed the withdrawal of the first 1,000 U.S. forces from that country. His assassination assured that the military-industrial complex that even Eisenhower had worried about gained supremacy, and 58,000 American lives were lost in a futile war in Vietnam.

Reflecting on what lessons could be learned from JFKs approach to world peace, Ted Sorensen comments, “To be sure, the Kennedy era was a very different one. Though this country possessed the most awesome military force in the world — indeed, in human history — Kennedy took care to see to it that the United States was respected primarily for the economic, educational, and civil opportunities and rights it offered its citizens, for its great institutions of learning and for its commitment to peace, not primarily for its military might. He both represented and conveyed to the world the best instincts and traditions of Americans as a generous, peaceful people, thereby increasing the affection and respect with which we were regarded around the world. This made us a less likely target for resentment and attack from terrorists and other America-haters.”

Sorensen notes “The centerpiece of Kennedy’s strategy was the concept of ‘world law.’ This included an emphasis on treaties, alliances, arms control and the United Nations.” He says that while Kennedy specifically promised the world that the u.s. did not seek “‘a Pax Ameri-cana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,’ unfortunately, a Pax Americana is precisely what Bush seems to have in mind.”

Former President Gerald Ford, a Michigander,  recalled that “Across the hall from my old Congressional office” was Jack Kennedy’s office. “Although our parties differed, our priorities were much the same. We often walked over to the floor of the House together when the bells rang. Once there, we might go our separate ways, but we never sacrificed our friendship to our ambitions.

“Jack Kennedy understood that in the high stakes game of history, only those who are willing to lose for their convictions deserve to win at the polls.”

John Kennedy was the most civilized President we have had since Jefferson. He had given the nation a new sense of itself — a new spirit, a new style, a new conception of its role and destiny. Had he lived, there would have been a more civilized, cultured discourse between members of society and between nations. He was a beacon of hope that the tawdriness of conventional politics could be transcended. 

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