- Historic Sites
John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later
Was the murdered President one of our best, a man of “vigor, rationality, and noble vision” or was he “an optical illusion,” “an expensively programmed waxwork”? A noted historian examines the mottled evolution of his reputation.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Historians of religion may well explore the significance of the incumbency of the first President of the Roman Catholic faith, in particular how it was related to the ecumenical spirit of the 1960s. One would like to know, too, what impact Kennedy may have had on the process of self-examination within the Catholic Church, though, as Schlesinger notes, the President “lived far away from the world of the Holy Name Societies, Knights of Columbus and communion breakfasts. ” When, in 1960, he was criticized in some Catholic quarters for insisting he was not under papal authority, he remarked, “Now I understand why Henry the Eighth set up his own church.” As President he came out against federal aid to parochial schools and commented: “As all of you know, some circles invented the myth that after Al Smith’s defeat in 1928, he sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: ‘Unpack.’ After my press conference on the school bill, I received a one-word wire from the Pope: ‘Pack.’ ” At a Gridiron Club affair, he added, “I asked the Chief Justice tonight whether he thought our new education bill was constitutional and he said, ‘It’s clearly constitutional—it hasn’t got a prayer.’ ” And to friends at a dinner party he expressed doubt, whimsically, that Pope John was as great a figure as the press touted him to be. “You Protestants are always building him up,” he said. Kennedy’s detachment and his adroit wit go far toward explaining why alarm over a Catholic in the White House, so pervasive in 1960, had so largely abated by 1963 that it appears now to have been removed as a serious handicap for a presidential aspirant, a development whose benefits may extend to other minority groups.
However, in the end the efforts of the historians are not likely to have a very considerable effect on Kennedy’s reputation, for he has already become part not of history but of myth, a myth that much of the public embraced and historians could not altogether escape. As Theodore White has observed: “More than any other President since Lincoln, John F. Kennedy has become myth. The greatest President in the stretch between them was, of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt; but it was difficult to make myth of Franklin Roosevelt, the country squire, the friendly judge, the approachable politician, the father figure. Roosevelt was a great man because he understood his times, and because almost always, at the historic intersections, he took the fork in the road that proved to be correct. He was so right and so strong, it was sport to challenge him. But Kennedy was cut off at the promise, not after the performance, and so it was left to television and his widow, Jacqueline, to frame the man as legend.” The legend did not take long to evolve. By the time of the first anniversary of his death, Newsweek was remarking, “In the bare space of a year … Mr. Kennedy had been transfigured from man into myth—an enshrinement that would have pained him to see,” and the columnist James Reston concluded, “Deprived of the place he sought in history, he has been given in compensation a place in legend.”
Within a year, “Kennedy had been transfigured from man into myth—an enshrinement that would have pained him.”
The chivalric imagery was fostered, too, by his survivors, especially by his widow. The mode was set by the elaborate state funeral that she arranged—the riderless charger with reversed boots, the tolling bells, the relentless rolls of the drums, the Black Watch Pipers, the queen of Greece and the king of the Belgians and the emperor of Ethiopia and the majestic Charles de Gaulle striding up Connecticut Avenue, and, finally, as the cortege ended its long journey, Jacqueline bending with a torch to light the eternal flame. “It was a day,” wrote Mary McGrory, “of such endless fitness, with so much pathos and panoply, so much grief nobly borne.”