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2004 Presidential Leadership
Chapter 35: John Fitzgerald Kennedy

SURVEY RANKING: 18

BORN: May 29, 1917, Brookline, Massachusetts

WIFE: Jacqueline Bouvier

RELIGION: Roman Catholic

PARTY: Democrat

MILITARY EXPERIENCE: U.S. Naval Reserve (lieutenant)

OTHER OFFICES HELD: U.S. representative from Massachusetts (1947-53), U.S. senator (1953-60)

TOOK OFFICE: January 20, 1961

VICE PRESIDENT: Lyndon Johnson

DIED IN OFFICE: November 22, 1963 (assassinated)

BURIED: Arlington, Virginia


by Peggy Noonan


History will take a cool-eyed look at John F. Kennedy and his accomplishments and failures only when all who were alive when he was alive are gone. Until then his reputation will be dominated by twilight remembrances and "Where were you when you found out?"

The numerically biggest generation in all American history was at its most impressionable when he was at his most lionized, in the years after his death. Boomers now run the world. It doesn't matter what they know of JFK now, as adults, or what they've learned. They're not going to shake their sense that he was King Arthur lost upon the field. They're not going to let you shake it, either.

But let's try anyway. Let's try not to be partisan or swayed by glamour, or reflexively hostile, or reflexively anything. Let's try to look at him apart from all the hype and hagiography of the forty years after his death.

Start with what we know of his personality. I wish I had known him because I feel certain I would have liked him. By all accounts he was witty and humorous, teasing and bright. He was not an intellectual but he was quick, and one can see from his writings and the testimony of his friends about his conversation that he had a talent for focus: He could see the point and get to it. There is no evidence that he ever read or gave any thought to political philosophy. Having fun and enjoying life were important to him. His friends attribute this to his ill health; he wasn't sure he'd be here long. Maybe they are right, and maybe it is also true he just liked having a good time.

He was an attractive and athletic man; he cared how he looked. He was the first big league politician to use ManTan, the sunless tanner of the 1950s; he thought it made him look vigorous and windblown. He was well tailored and cared about the cut of his suits and the style of his collars. He loved gossip; Gore Vidal said that when he died, the history of everyone's private life went with him.

He knew great and persistent physical suffering, the kind that wears you down and strips the good nature from you. But he was capable of detachment even from this; he had fantastic self-discipline.

He served his country in the navy. He didn't pull strings to get out of the war, he pulled strings to get into the war. He fought World War II as the skipper of a PT boat, a glamour posting at the time. One night his ship was chugging along in the darkness in the Blackett Strait when a Japanese destroyer came along and smashed it in two. He rallied his men and saved one of them by clenching a strap from his lifejacket in his teeth, swimming for five hours in the cold, tugging them both to safety.

He had guts. He had guts in terms of the world of electoral politics, rolling the dice to run for the presidency when he was only forty-three, when others were ahead of him in line (Senators Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey). He worked, planned, strategized, and spent. He faced down anti-Catholic feeling with style and shrewdness; read his speech to the Baptist ministers in Houston and you realize his argument was essentially this: I'm Catholic but I'm not that Catholic. He won.

And he remained glamorous.

Here we get to the nub. John F. Kennedy didn't know what he was about in terms of his leadership. He didn't know what he stood for, except winning. He had no particular reason for being in politics beyond the sense that it was the family business -- Honey Fitz, his father, Joe, his older brother's political destiny thwarted by death -- and his father wanted him to do it. Young JFK was very frank about this in his letters to friends and comments. He could feel his father's eyes "burning into the back of my head."

Kennedy's father was a charming monster who was an isolationist in foreign affairs and a constant interventionist in all other spheres, especially that of his family. In Clark Clifford's memoirs, the old Democratic Party warhorse-in-lawyer's-pinstripes wrote of his first meeting with JFK, in the 1950s. Senator Kennedy was pliant, pleasing, in need of legal assistance. During the meeting old Joe Kennedy called Clifford's office to bark instructions and yell at the senator and at the attorney. Clifford found it chilling. JFK handled his father coolly. To read the scene is to wonder what toll the facts of his life took on JFK, and to ponder a paradox. Old Joe's blind ambition probably made his son president. Old Joe probably made his son sick too, and less capable of performing the job.

Kennedy had a beautiful sense of rhetoric, and made the White House, when he inhabited it, seem a very exciting place -- youthful and full of "vigor," his great word. But again, toward what end? Looking back forty years later it appears Kennedy was largely driven by fear, not hope. He was the age of anxiety. He feared the world would think him weak if he didn't move on Castro; he feared the world would think him belligerent after he moved on Castro. He feared the joint chiefs would be a little too enthusiastic in their anti-communism. He feared the Republicans would call him soft on communism if he didn't cleave to the chiefs. He feared Khrushchev would move on Berlin; he feared Khrushchev would put up a wall; he feared that if he responded to the wall it would heighten tensions.

It is there in the lines and between the lines of all of the histories. He constantly feared looking weak. He feared the nascent civil rights movement would force him to take actions that would be politically unpopular; he feared Democrats who favored civil rights would abandon him if he didn't stand up for blacks; he feared that if he were energetically liberal on civil rights the old Southern mandarins of the party would kill his programs on Capitol Hill; he feared inviting Martin Luther King for a meeting; he feared and feared. For a supposedly sunny man he could see the downside of everything.

But the larger point is that Kennedy never seemed to believe in anything. This would seem an odd thing to say. After all, his rhetoric believed in something: It was pro-democracy, anti-communist; it celebrated liberty. But what did he think of communism? We don't know, really. When he first met Khrushchev, in Vienna in 1961, he proved, according to the State Department notes, incapable -- literally not capable -- of asserting the moral and practical superiority of free markets over totalitarian economics. What did he think of capitalism? In all the memoirs of his thousand days, in all the biographies, he does not speak of this. One senses that on capitalism he felt the ambivalence of the son of a rapacious millionaire who'd seen dad up close. Hard to be romantic when Pop was such a pirate, and the system allowed such swashbuckling.

He seemed to have believed he could manage better than others, and he seems to have believed in himself. Which gets us to what are called "the latest revelations." There have been many. Most recently, in 2003, the historian Robert Dallek published a Kennedy biography in which he details JFK's illnesses, which were varied and potentially debilitating -- including Addison's disease, chronic pain due to the collapse of bones in his spinal column, and intestinal problems including colitis and ulcers -- and which should have been fully divulged to the American people both before they voted in the 1960 presidential election and as they observed and judged his presidency. Dallek then recounts the medications President Kennedy took, including corticosteroids, procaine, antispasmodics including Lomotil, testosterone, amphetamines, Nembutal, and, for a few days, an antipsychotic drug.

All of which makes JFK unusual as a president but not necessarily as a man of his time. He was in fact very much of his time -- of the Sinatra generation. They got through the Depression, fought the war, and came home too hip for the room. People think the boomers discovered sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, but it was their parents, really -- children of immigrants, home from Anzio and the South Pacific, beginning to leave the safety and social embarrassment of their parents' religion, informed by what they'd been taught as children about World War I and what happened at Versailles, influenced by Scott and Ernest and the lost generation.

Add some Marx and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, throw in some Vat 69 and Freud, add some pills -- put that all together, shake it, and pour it out: what you get is partay. The greatest generation on Saturday night. They were a great generation, and they were more than that, and less. They created the boomers, the welfare state, the world we live in. They were one rocking group, and JFK was very much of them.

Dallek is perhaps too quick to assert that none of JFK's medications or the drugs he took seems to have impaired his leadership. He notes that Kennedy had three doctors treating him, one of whom, the famous "Dr. Feelgood," Max Jacobson, was apparently giving him amphetamine shots during that first summit with Khrushchev in Vienna. After the meeting Khrushchev operated with a new belligerence, sundering Berlin with a wall and placing missiles in Cuba.

President Kennedy did not mean to, but he ushered in the age of political weirdness, the age when it became a cliché that to be a president you had to be media-savvy, compelling, stylish. You had to be first an image, then a man. This has not served us well. Since his time we have seen a fairly odd assortment of individuals as president.

But in part for just that reason, history is not going to stop being fascinated by him. He was the beginning of the modern age.


Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a columnist for OpinionJournal.com. She is author of When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan (Viking Penguin, 2001) and A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag: America Today (Wall Street Journal Books, 2003), a collection of her post-September 11 columns.

Copyright 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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