Lewis L Gould is the Eugene C Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin
Assassinated in November 1963, John F Kennedy (known as JFK) still rides high in public opinion polls in America, and he is seen as one of the greatest presidents the United States has known. Despite the flood of disclosures about his personal life, and the limits of his presidential accomplishments, Kennedy remains a fascinating figure, and books and films about his career command large audiences. His reputation may have declined among historians and political scientists, but JFK’s popularity endures, perhaps because of the evidence of his frailties and humanity.
… Kennedy was the first superstar chief executive …
The key point in understanding Kennedy is his central place in the evolution of the modern American presidency. While before him there had been chief executives, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D Roosevelt, who used the instruments of celebrity to their advantage, Kennedy was the first superstar chief executive, and he wielded the techniques of the new age of television as no other politician ever had before him.
These skills enabled him to overcome a rather thin background for a US presidential candidate, in 1960. Three terms in the House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate had not left much in the way of a legislative record, but the absence of policy commitments worked in Kennedy’s favour. He could campaign on the slogan of ‘getting America moving again’ without having to stress specifics.
His Republican opponent, Richard M Nixon, proved a good foil for Kennedy in their televised debates, and the relatively inexperienced Massachusetts Democrat managed to achieve a narrow victory over the vice president. What counted even more was the way the enthusiastic response of the crowds to his candidacy indicated that, if he were to gain office, Kennedy had the potential to transform the presidency into a media sensation.
The mixture of public relations expertise and hype that Kennedy infused into American politics was there from the beginning of his public life. His first book, Why England Slept (1940), shot up the best-seller list because his father bought thousands of copies. The wartime heroism that he showed in the South Pacific grew into legend thanks to a Reader’s Digest article that was passed out during his early campaigns. He won the Pulitzer Prize with Profiles in Courage (1955), a largely ghostwritten endeavour, and the prize itself came his way because Arthur Krock of The New York Times intervened to make it so.
To a large degree, Kennedy was not simply made the president in 1960; he was marketed as one.
Kennedy affected a wry detachment from all these examples of inflating his credentials, but he showed himself quite willing to enjoy the fruits of the exaggerations. To a large degree, Kennedy was not simply made the president in 1960; he was marketed as one. The culture of celebrity, which had been hanging around the White House since the time of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, now moved centre stage in American presidential life.
Before the travails of the 1960s, the American president could still expect the public at large to show a certain deference towards him, and the media cooperated in this by putting him forward in the manner that best served his interests. He seemed the embodiment of youthful energy, and the difficulties caused by his weak back, and his dependence on painkillers, were carefully screened from public view.
A celebrity in the presidency
Having used the techniques of stardom to get to the presidency, Kennedy and his aides extended these practices after his inauguration. The potential embarrassments, such as the state of his health, and his sexual philandering, were kept out of the public eye, and beneath the glittering surface, the doses of fakery and falsehood that helped shape the new president’s image were abundant.
… Kennedy’s extramarital affairs, and his dalliances with women on the fringes of organised crime, went unreported.
During the early 1960s, journalists and informed observers used to discuss in private the president’s casual approach to his marriage vows, and his insatiable sexual appetite, but they nevertheless kept the code of silence that then protected the reputations of politicians (and those of the scribes as well). So Kennedy’s extramarital affairs, and his dalliances with women on the fringes of organised crime, went unreported. What the American people were allowed to see were carefully staged occasions, where Kennedy and his wife were seen at their best, displaying their sophistication and good taste. This was how, in the glow of network television, then at the height of its influence, the first truly glamorous presidential couple appeared before the nation.
The glamour and beauty of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy added to the sense that a new vitality had come to the White House. Reporters for The New York Times observed in January 1962 that ‘the palpable love affair between the White House and a jade called Culture shows signs of reaching an impassioned peak this year’. Hollywood chipped in with an unlikely film about Kennedy’s wartime experience, PT-109, although this flopped at the box office.
The glamour and beauty of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy added to the sense that a new vitality had come to the White House.
The glow of elegance and sophistication that came with the Kennedys was an adroit contrivance. The president’s attraction to the James Bond spy novels of Ian Fleming, for example, was made to look like a sign of incisiveness, while the western novels that President Dwight D Eisenhower had enjoyed just seemed dull. The well-crafted prose of JFK’s speechwriters, and his wife’s love for early 19th-century French décor, also impressed Americans as showing good taste and class.
A cooperative press
In addition to the useful fact that press inquiry into presidential lapses of behaviour was not considered the done thing during his time in office, Kennedy himself was also adept at providing favoured reporters with the illusion of a special friendship with him, and a sense of access – all aimed at keeping the critical faculties of the journalists dulled. If a reporter resisted such presidential wooing, or wrote disapprovingly about Vietnam policy, Kennedy was willing to use more overt forms of pressure with various publishers. In this way, a favourable press context for Kennedy’s public personality was created, and this was sustained throughout his brief administration.
… the Kennedy press conferences became a popular attraction, with the President preparing for these sessions systematically …
The President showed a deft touch in other aspects of public relations. The scheduling of press conferences for a live television audience made such sessions an on-going media event. The initial reaction to the innovation was sceptical, with James Reston of The New York Times calling the step ‘the goofiest idea since the hula hoop’. Viewers disagreed, and the Kennedy press conferences became a popular attraction, with the President preparing for these sessions systematically – any mistake would have had large consequences. The telecasts began the process of transforming reporters into media celebrities as well, and as ratings for presidential coverage grew, the media treated the experience more and more as entertainment rather than governance.
To maintain the president’s ratings, the Kennedy White House employed a pollster, Lou Harris, who helped the administration in the shaping of public opinion. Kennedy could thus look forward to a presidential style of continuous campaigning – a style that has characterised the US presidency from the years of Richard Nixon onwards.
Raw power had by now become the hallmark of modern presidents …
Other means of shaping attitudes were less savoury. The Kennedys used the Internal Revenue Service – first to pursue the Mafia, and then to attack the far right wing critics of the administration, and undermine their credibility. Raw power had by now become the hallmark of modern presidents, whether Republican or Democrat.
A mixed presidential record
In foreign and domestic policy, Kennedy showed himself as an activist in a range of liberal causes in the presidential campaign of 1960. In so doing he aroused an expectation that he could do what Franklin D Roosevelt had done in 1933 in his famous first ‘One Hundred Days’ as president, when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress, to reshape every aspect of the economy, from banking to social welfare.
Only in 1963 did he embrace the cause of civil rights with real intensity …
Kennedy won the presidential election by such a narrow margin that his subsequent record in domestic affairs was bound to be modest. At first, the White House faced a Congress that was restive about Kennedy’s programmes, and unsympathetic to his efforts to enact new initiatives. Only in 1963 did he embrace the cause of civil rights with real intensity, and propose a tax cut to spark the economy.
Then, as the prosperity of the 1960s accelerated, a rising tide of economic good news buoyed the administration. The subsequent legislative achievements in civil rights and health insurance, however, would be left for Lyndon Johnson to achieve.
Foreign affairs brought Kennedy one significant triumph – the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Foreign affairs brought Kennedy one significant triumph – the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Apart from this he showed a strong initiative in pushing through the nuclear test-ban treaty of 1963, and a mixed record elsewhere. Following the Bay of Pigs episode, an ill-advised effort to topple Fidel Castro, the administration pursued efforts to assassinate the Cuban leader, with the assistance of organized crime. The White House was lucky that this sinister initiative did not become public knowledge until a decade after Kennedy’s passing.
In Vietnam, JFK escalated the American commitment in South East Asia in ways that left a legacy of involvement for Lyndon Johnson. Had Kennedy won a second term, scandals and unsolved problems such as these are likely to have plagued his administration.
Kennedy in history
Kennedy’s murder, on 22 November 1963, marked a significant transformation in the history of the presidency, a change that went well beyond the immediate shift of power to Lyndon Johnson. The shock of Kennedy’s death revealed the fragility of the institution, as well as the importance of the continuity that it provided to Americans. And in the light of what happened later, during the 1960s, the notion that John Kennedy was a president who would have avoided the Vietnam morass, and dealt with the domestic crises of the 1960s more adroitly than Johnson, proved a compelling legend.
… Kennedy has remained frozen in time as a youthful, vibrant figure.
For his immediate successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Kennedy acted as a formidable competitive presence. Unlike most of the other participants in his administration, Kennedy has remained frozen in time as a youthful, vibrant figure. His early death meant that the promise of his greatness could never be undermined, even by the revelations of his personal lapses and the ambiguity of his views on whether or not to take the US out of South East Asia.
The martyr became an icon whose power to charm and inspire seemed limitless, detached as it was from the reality of American history in the rest of the 20th century. The celebrity that John Kennedy had done so much to create for the office of the presidency, ensured for him a perpetual fame – an eminence that neither time nor historians have yet been able to diminish.
Find out more
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek ((Little, Brown, to be published in 2003)
Kennedy by Hugh Brogan (Longman, 1996)
The Presidency of John F. Kennedy by James N Giglio (University Press of Kansas, 1991)
President Kennedy: Profile of Power by Richard Reeves (Simon & Schuster, 1993)
The Modern American Presidency by Lewis L Gould (University Press of Kansas, 2003)
About the author
Lewis L Gould is the Eugene C Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Modern American Presidency, published in 2003.