Mark White (Queen Mary, University of London) on why academics and the general public disagree on how great a leader Kennedy was and how his 'dazzling image' has proven to be one of his biggest achievements.
John F. Kennedy, Fifty Years On
by Mark White
On 22 November 1963 the world remembers the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. The question of whether Lee Harvey Oswald alone was responsible for the slaying of Kennedy, or whether there was a broader conspiracy, will be reconsidered. People will also reflect on the life and in particular the presidency of JFK, and many will lament the passing of a man they regard as a great leader.
Indeed public opinion polls in recent years reveal that the American people regard Kennedy as one of the greatest presidents in American history, if not the greatest. The public, on both sides of the Atlantic, might be surprised to learn that many scholars do not share their admiration for Kennedy. Whilst some historians give him high marks for his handling of the 1961 Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, others emphasize the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, his escalation in Vietnam, the huge military build-up he authorised, and his inability to secure the passage of important legislation in Congress. Polls show that most scholars rate Kennedy as an above-average president, but not a great one.
So how does one account for this disparity between how the American people and historians view Kennedy? The answer is Kennedy's potent, seductive, iconic image – it continues to dazzle not only Americans but people throughout the world. In Kennedy: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the book I have just published with Bloomsbury Academic, I examine the issue of how Kennedy was able to develop such a powerful image. A key reason for the appeal of his image was its multi-faceted nature. In 1940 his first book Why England Slept, about the British appeasement of Nazi Germany, was published; and sixteen years later his second, Profiles in Courage, was released – it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. This established the idea of Kennedy as a man of letters. In 1943 Kennedy's brave response to the ramming of his PT boat by a Japanese destroyer in World War II won him military honours and generated much publicity that presented him as a war hero to the American people. His election three years later to Congress, whilst still in his twenties, created the idea that he was an exceptionally precocious politician. With his large and interesting family, who always campaigned for him energetically, he emerged as a symbol of the family. And his youthful good looks made him a sex symbol.
The 1960 presidential campaign and his inauguration as president added two further components to the Kennedy image. The first was the idea of JFK as a man of faith. One of the big issues in the 1960 campaign was Kennedy's religion as he attempted to become the first Catholic elected president. Some Americans worried that he would owe his allegiance to Rome rather than America and the Constitution. Kennedy had to convince them otherwise. But although this was a political problem for Kennedy, the premise of this whole debate was that he was a man of genuine religious conviction. The pageantry of the inauguration and Jackie Kennedy's princess-like appearance on that occasion added to the sense of JFK as royal.
So by the time he was established in the White House Kennedy appeared to be a man of letters, war hero, political prodigy, symbol of the family, sex symbol, a man of faith and a regal leader. His presidency served to strengthen these ideas about him. When Marilyn Monroe, the greatest sex symbol of the age, appeared scantily-clad at Madison Square Garden to sing 'Happy Birthday' to JFK, this strengthened his own erotic appeal. In 1963 Hollywood released a movie about JFK's service in World War II, thereby reminding Americans of his wartime valour. All of the cultural events at the White House, organised by Jackie, made Kennedy seem a man of cultural refinement, building on his image as a man of letters. The fact that he was the youngest ever elected president enlarged his status as a political prodigy.
With the assassination, Kennedy's life and presidency were over, but the image endured. Jackie Kennedy played the key role in shaping his posthumous image. She gave an interview to Life magazine a week after his death in which she mentioned that her late husband had enjoyed listening to the musical Camelot about King Arthur and the Knight of the Round Table. What she was implying was that Kennedy had been such a graceful, inspring leader that he evoked the Arthurian legend – that he had been so great it was appropriate to think of him in mythical terms. She also made sure that Kennedy's funeral was based on Abraham Lincoln's, in effect asserting his greatness by linking him to another president whose greatness was clear.
In the current age of 'spin' dominated politics when our leaders devote much time to thinking about questions of image, it is easy to condemn JFK for the importance he attached to image during his own lifetime. But in fact given the impact of television on politics it was sensible and realistic of Kennedy to believe that image would decisively affect his political credibility. His dazzling image has proven be his most long-lasting achievement. Despite defusing the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War endured for another quarter century. Despite introducing the landmark civil rights bill to end racial segregation, it took the political skills of his presidential successor Lyndon Johnson to get it passed in Congress. But such was the skill with which he constructed his image that he continues today to enchant people throughout the world.
Mark White is the author of Kennedy: A Cultural History of an American Icon (2013), and Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, UK.