Skip to main content

John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later

July 2024
22min read

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.

The murder of John F. Kennedy twenty years ago last month occasioned an overwhelming sense of grief that may be without parallel in our history. When the news first was announced, people wept openly in the streets, and during the painful weekend that followed, as the mesmerizing images of the youthful President and his family were flashed again and again on the television screens, the feeling of deprivation deepened. A San Francisco columnist reported: “It is less than 72 hours since the shots rang out in Dallas, yet it seems a lifetime—a lifetime of weeping skies, wet eyes and streets. … Over the endless weekend, San Francisco looked like a city that was only slowly emerging from a terrible bombardment. Downtown, on what would normally have been a bustling Saturday, the people walked slowly, as in shock, their faces pale and drawn, their mood as somber as the dark clothes they wore under the gray skies.”

To the slain President’s admirers and associates, his death signified not merely a cruel personal loss but the end of an era. “For all of us, life goes on—but brightness has fallen from the air,” observed his special counsel Theodore Sorensen. “A Golden age is over and it will never be again.” One of Kennedy’s earliest biographers, William Manchester, had jotted down on the morning of Kennedy’s Inauguration the words of the sixteenth-century martyr, Hugh Latimer. “We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace … as I trust shall never be put out.” “Now,” Manchester wrote, “the light was gone from our lives, and I was left to grope in the darkness of the dead past. ” At the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson rose to say, “We will bear the grief of his death to the day of ours.”

Yet the mourning for Kennedy was by no means limited to his circle; it was felt no less deeply by those who had been his critics and adversaries. Few had commented more caustically on the New Frontier than Norman Mailer. But Mailer now declared: “What one has written about Kennedy was not reverent. Now, in the wake of the President’s assassination, a sense of real woe intrudes itself. For it may be that John F. Kennedy’s best claim to greatness was that he made an atmosphere possible in which one could be critical of him, biting, whimsical, disrespectful, imaginative, even out of line. It was the first time in America’s history that one could mock the Presidency on so high a level, and we may have to live for half a century before such a witty and promising atmosphere exists again.” Nor was Mailer alone. In Guinea, Sékou Touré stated, “I have lost my only true friend in the outside world,” and in Algiers, Ben Bella, his voice breaking, said, “I can’t believe it. Believe me, I’d rather it happen to me than to him.”

Such expressions were not atypical but representative, for the most conspicuous aspect of the anguish over the assassination was its worldwide character. In London more than a thousand traveled from distant parts of the city to pay homage at the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and the same instinct drew mourners to the American missions in Moscow and in Cairo, in Madras and in Tananarive. On the hillsides in Kampala by the residence of the American envoy, Ugandans sat in a silent vigil. From Yokohama a correspondent wrote: “Immediately when there came the news of Mr. Kennedy’s death, there was a silencing of life here and then a siege of grief as I have never seen before and never thought possible in Japan. No one told the Japanese to be shocked: they just cried with pain and anger and sorrow, as if the human psyche had been slammed in a car door, and maimed.”

What was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise. His legend is based on what might have been.

In Britain the BBC’s “That Was The Week That Was,” a program distinguished by its impiety toward authority, called Kennedy “the first Western politician to make politics a respectable profession for thirty years,” and in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, David Gourlay went so far as to say, “For the first time in my life I think I know how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was crucified.”

In the United States historians were not immune from such sentiments, though they were inclined to be more restrained. Even in 1963 they were reluctant to subscribe to the sentiment revealed by Public Opinion Quarterly, which found that “a full half of the adult population” in America judged Kennedy to be “one of the two or three best Presidents the country ever had.” Yet a good many historians were disposed to give him good marks. James MacGregor Burns, who had taken a detached view of Kennedy in his exemplary campaign biography, concluded that, as a dramatizer of issues, Kennedy rated with Lincoln, while Arthur Link, author of the definitive multivolume life of Woodrow Wilson, observed that Kennedy brought to the White House “qualities of vigor, rationality, and noble vision matched only by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt in this century. It is too early to try to fix his place among the Presidents, but I am inclined to believe that historians will rank him as a great President.”


Today, twenty years afterward, historians are far from reaching a consensus on President Kennedy, but few would be disposed to rank him so highly. The imagery associated with the name Kennedy, so brightly burnished in 1963, has tarnished; to bring to mind the episodes that caused dismay requires only the evocation of certain code words: Onassis, Chappaquiddick, Judith Exner. Kennedy’s reputation has been deflated by what one writer called “a group of late-souring historians known collectively as the revisionists,” and even those who had once been well disposed toward him have had second thoughts. Asked in 1973 whether his view of Kennedy had changed in the past decade, Arthur Link replied: “I should say that I somewhat overrated his abilities, his vision. … As we look back on the years ‘61 to ‘63, what seemed like great events and forward movement don’t seem so great and so forward now.”

A SENSE OF DISAPPOINTMENT in Kennedy was already a familiar theme in 1963. It had been voiced frequently while Kennedy was alive, by liberals as well as by conservatives. “Washington under Kennedy, somehow, isn’t the way we thought it would be,” wrote The New Republic’s “TRB” six months before the assassination. “Somehow, we felt Mr. Kennedy would do more.” From the Right had come Victor Lasky’s vitriolic best seller, J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth, of which one reviewer said, “Mr. Lasky knows how to use the knee.” Lasky maintained that “Kennedy did not appear to know where he was going—or what he was doing.”

In the years since 1963 some writers have carried this criticism to the point of saying that Kennedy’s place in history has altogether vanished. In England, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “Jonn F. Kennedy, it is now coming to be realized, was a nothing-man—an expensively programmed waxwork; a camera-microphone-public relations creation whose career, on examination, turns into a strip cartoon rather than history. ” From a more radical perspective, I. F. Stone said of Kennedy in 1973, “by now he is simply an optical illusion.” Even someone as well disposed toward Kennedy as his former adviser, Richard Neustadt, observed sadly: “He will be just a flicker, forever clouded by the record of his successors. I don’t think history will have much space for John Kennedy.”

Commentators frequently struck this melancholy chord, for Kennedy was perceived to be a man whose career was cut short before he could prove himself. “What was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise,” wrote James Reston. “The heart of the Kennedy legend is what might have been.” Such expressions of sorrow implied that Kennedy had not lived long enough to accomplish much. Even those who spoke well of him often had less to say about what he had achieved than about his “style.”

The contention that Kennedy’s Presidency was inconsequential was disputed by the first authors to write at length about the thousand days—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore Sorensen, each of whom had served on the White House staff. Each was impatient with the emphasis of other writers on Kennedy’s style, for that suggested that he was wanting in substance. “That special Kennedy quality that some called by the superficial name of ‘style’ was in reality his insistence on excellence,” Sorensen maintained. Each claimed, too, that it was unfair to compare Kennedy’s brief tenure with the much longer reign of other Presidents. Schlesinger wrote: “He had had so little time: it was as if Jackson had died before the nullification controversy … as if Lincoln had been killed six months after Gettysburg…”

Schlesinger and Sorensen also emphasized that, relative to other Presidents, Kennedy operated in inhospitable circumstances. Unlike predecessors who could claim overwhelming mandates for change, Kennedy had won the narrowest victory of any presidential candidate in this century, a reality he always carried with him. A short time before his death he commented on a White House aide whom the press had described as coruscatingly brilliant. “Those guys should never forget, 50,000 votes the other way and we’d all be coruscatingly stupid.” The same election that had given him his razor-thin victory had added twenty-one Republicans to the House and one to the Senate; he had to contend with a bipartisan conservative coalition that had balked most efforts at reform for almost a quarter-century. In 1962 alone that coalition defeated Medicare, aid to colleges, a civil rights measure, and a proposal for a new department on urban affairs. (Kennedy’s critics conceded these handicaps but said he was too easily awed by them, too unwilling to risk his prestige. “In his relations with Congress,” the constitutional scholar John Roche has written, “Kennedy suffered from what Søren Kierkegaard once called the ‘paralysis of knowledge.’ He was temperamentally incapable of leading lost causes, or causes which seemed lost in a rational appraisal of the odds.”) Not only Schlesinger and Sorensen but other Kennedy champions, both in his White House years and subsequently, pointed out that there was not in the early sixties a national mood of urgency of the sort induced by the Great Depression. “There is evidence on every hand,” wrote the Washington commentator Richard Rovere in 1963, “that the country fails to share Mr. Kennedy’s alarm over the disorders he would like to remedy. ” Critics said that the apathy resulted in good part from the President’s failure to arouse the people, but at the time the essayist Andrew Hacker did not see much point “in exhorting a self-satisfied public to a state of mind it does not care to embrace.”


Lastly Kennedy’s defenders argued that the President was just beginning to come into his own in his third year in office and that his great period of accomplishment lay just ahead. “My own feeling, and it can be only a feeling,” reflected Clinton Rossiter, a political scientist, “is that his victories, which might have elevated him to historical greatness, were just over the next rise.” Some implied that the promised land would have been occupied before Kennedy’s term was out. More common is the judgment that Kennedy was building a firm base in his first term; that he would have overwhelmed Barry Goldwater in 1964, as Johnson did; and that his big triumphs would have come in his second term. “How, then,” Sorensen asked, “could it be that he should be taken from us when he stood on the very threshold of the promised land to which he had led us?”

NOT CONTENT WITH citing this range of extenuating circumstances, Kennedy’s admirers claimed that the President, despite his brief tenure, had compiled a solid record of accomplishment. For instance, in his massive biography, Kennedy, published in 1965, Sorensen provided a detailed appendix cataloging the legislative achievements of the Eighty-sixth and Eighty-seventh Congresses. The fifteen items and twenty-one subtopics ranged from trade expansion to public works, from mental retardation to the Communications Satellite Act. To this list of accomplishments he might have added any number of executive actions—the showdowns with Governors Ross Barnett in Mississippi and George Wallace in Alabama, the steel-price confrontation with the U.S. Steel board chairman Roger Blough, and a cluster of excellent appointments like those of Wilbur Cohen as assistant secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and Walter Heller as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He also appointed some first-rate ambassadors to nations of the Third World. That same year, Schlesinger, in A Thousand Days, summed up the case for Kennedy’s historical significance: “Yet he had accomplished so much: the new hope for peace on earth, the elimination of nuclear testing in the atmosphere and the abolition of nuclear diplomacy, the new policies toward Latin America and the third world, the reordering of American defense, the emancipation of the American Negro, the revolution in national economic policy, the concern for poverty, the stimulus to the arts, the fight for reason against extremism and mythology.”

Schlesinger’s categories set the agenda for much of the subsequent controversy, not least his claim that Kennedy brought about the “emancipation of the American Negro. ” A great many writers, notably Howard Zinn and Victor Navasky, sharply challenged this contention. They pointed out that Kennedy moved more slowly than a tortoise in his first two years in office. He refused to propose civil rights legislation, named Southern white racists to the federal bench, and tried to stifle protest. Even in 1963, it has been said, he acted only when he was compelled to, and still too timidly.


Schlesinger’s other assertions with respect to domestic affairs—especially the “revolution in national economic policy” and the “concern for poverty”—raised the question of how much should be credited to Kennedy, how much to Johnson. Kennedy’s critics have said that, at the time of his death, his program was hopelessly bogged down in Congress, but that within months of taking office Johnson was able to put through a tax cut (the centerpiece of the “New Economics”), the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the War on Poverty. On the other hand, Kennedy partisans have claimed that both the civil rights and tax-cut measures were assured of passage in November 1963 and that Johnson’s War on Poverty was no more than a consolidation of Kennedy proposals under an exaggerated title. This conflict is not easily resolved, for the evidence can be interpreted either way. Moreover, the matter has one poignant aspect: Johnson succeeded in part because of the wave of grief and remorse that followed Kennedy’s death, an ineluctable factor in judging the relative contributions of the two Presidents.

Even in 1963, critics have said, Kennedy acted on civil rights only when compelled to, and still too timidly.

The obverse side of the claim that Kennedy deserves credit for the advances of the 1960s is the contention that he deserves the blame for all that has gone wrong since 1963, and in the recent period a number of historians have said that the Kennedy experience was malevolent. In Cold War and Counterrevolution, Richard J. Walton has written, “As Congressman and Senator, Kennedy was never a liberal, and as President he prosecuted the Cold War more vigorously, and thus more dangerously, than did Eisenhower and Dulles. ” Critics have traced to Kennedy not just the vicissitudes of the Johnson administration, especially the Vietnam quagmire, but the disasters of the Nixon government too. They are distressed by the linkage of the Watergate burglars to the Bay of Pigs but even more by the overblown style of the Presidency that Kennedy bequeathed to his successors. His showdown with U.S. Steel was called by Newsweek “overstaged muscle-flexing,” and he has been likened to Nixon by the historian William Carleton in his contempt for the bureaucracy and his exaltation of “the personalized and plebiscitic Presidency.”

Kennedy’s critics portray him as an implacable Cold Warrior. Of the President’s Inaugural address, the British commentator Henry Fairlie has written: “These are the words which many of those who applauded the speech at the time now find offensive; and they are offensive. By what right does the leader of any free people commit them—for it was a commitment which he was making—to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,’ when their country is not even at war, and not directly threatened?” Kennedy then went on to point out in that address that “the graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” Once in office, Fairlie observes, Kennedy appointed to key positions men like Walt Rostow, whom Fairlie labels “the Ignatius Loyola of the administration,” and the Pentagon’s Roswell Gilpatric and Paul Nitze, who “seemed like hardened missiles … called from the Cold War silos in which they had been emplaced a decade earlier.”

These Cold Warriors, as well as the President himself, are blamed for what are regarded as the administration’s disastrous policies toward Cuba. The Bay of Pigs operation has almost no defenders, but objection to Kennedy’s Cuban policy does not stop there. In some accounts of the missile crisis of 1962, it is not Kennedy but Khrushchev who emerges as the hero, and the President is condemned for recklessly endangering the lives of millions of innocents. David Riesman says that he shocks his students by pointing out that there was one thing that even President Nixon didn’t do, which was to put the country in jeopardy in the Cuban missile crisis.

Proponents applaud Kennedy for the Test Ban Treaty, a first step toward “getting the genie back in the bottle.”

A good many writers also place the blame for the American involvement in Vietnam on Kennedy. They assert that the crucial decision to expand the war came not under Johnson but under Kennedy, that a speech he delivered at a Fort Worth breakfast on the day of his death bragged that he had “increased our special counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South Viet-Nam by 600 percent. ” They note, too, that the escalation under Johnson was carried out by Kennedy legatees like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Walt Rostow, and McGeorge Bundy, “the best and the brightest. ” It was Kennedy, they say, who became intoxicated with the possibilities of counterinsurgency and left Johnson the legacy that Vietnam was a domino that must not fall. Nor, they assert, was Kennedy the kind of man who would have been comfortable with withdrawal.

Frequently Kennedy’s critics have traced the source of his failures in foreign policy to his obsessive machismo. It has become commonplace among historians to depict Kennedy as a sex-driven man who fashioned policies out of a compulsion to prove his maleness. In The Kennedy Neurosis, Nancy Gager Clinch, a psychohistorian, argued that the President was motivated by “an obsessive-compulsive need for power and social recognition” and that the popularity of this “pseudo-sorcerer” derived from the neurotic needs of the American people. Throughout her volume she employs psychological jargon with an abandon that would make Joyce Brothers blush. “This book,” she writes,”can hardly presume to be an analysis of the American psyche, although one is sorely needed, but it is possible to separate out from the American characterology at least a dozen strains of neurotic obsessiveness that are directly mirrored in the Kennedys.” Her historical analogies are no more restrained. She asserts that the “reaction to President Kennedy was a psychohistorical parallel to the public enthusiasm aroused by Martin Luther in the sixteenth-century Reformation,” and that the “Kennedy mystique can also be seen as essentially the outcome of some four thousand years of the Graeco-Judeo-Christian ethos.” However extreme, she is not alone in asserting that Kennedy’s policies in Cuba and Vietnam came out of a neurotic desire to demonstrate his virility.

At the same time that writers found fault with Kennedy’s policies, they expressed increasing disenchantment with his style, including the Camelot imagery. In Waiting for the End, published in the year following Kennedy’s death, the critic Leslie Fiedler called the late President “the very embodiment of middlebrow culture climbing,” while others depicted the Kennedy family as the purveyors of the distorted values of a consumer-oriented society. “The Kennedys were pure consumption, particularly on the women’s side.… All they were thinking of was clothes and hairdos,” the essayist Elizabeth Hardwick has said. In Mary Barelli Gallagher’s memoir of Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Lady is portrayed, noted one reviewer, as a “greedy, insensitive narcissist, a compulsive shopper and dieter, a chronically tardy child-woman who had fits of temper when she couldn’t get her way.”

IN A 1970 ARTICLE in the New York Review of Books with the symptomatic title “The Kennedy Fantasy,” the biographer Ronald Steel recapitulated the argument of the critics: “As the brief reign of John F. Kennedy recedes into the historical past, leaving the Vietnam war as its permanent monument, … it is sometimes hard to remember what the Kennedy legend is all about. … It got tarnished somewhere around the Bay of Pigs and never recaptured its former glow. That fiasco was followed by the failure of summit diplomacy at Vienna, the manipulation of public anxiety over Berlin, a dramatic jump in the arms race, the unnecessary trip to the brink during the Cuban missile crisis, timidity on civil rights, legislative stalemate in Congress, and the decision to send the first American troops to Vietnam. Somehow everything went wrong, and increasingly the crusading knight gave way to the conventional politician who had no answers for us. John F. Kennedy’s assassination came almost as a reprieve, forever enshrining him in history as the glamorous, heroic leader he wanted to be, rather than as the politician buffeted by events he could not control.”

Yet even if Kennedy has fallen in esteem since 1963, not all writers agree with this strongly negative assessment. Kennedy, they point out, was the first to raise issues that had been too long buried, the first to assail the verities of the Cold War and the myths of economic orthodoxy and of racism. On three successive days in June 1963, the historian William Chafe points out, Kennedy advocated new departures on world peace, economic growth, and civil rights. Though they acknowledge Kennedy’s shortcomings with regard to the black revolution, historians such as Carl Brauer and Steven Lawson, after exhaustive examination of manuscript materials in the Kennedy Library and other archives, have also emphasized more positive developments, such as the expansion of black suffrage under the prodding of the Justice Department. Kennedy, concludes Brauer, both encouraged and responded to black aspirations and led the nation into its “Second Reconstruction.”

Some historians have offered a spirited rebuttal, too, to the allegation that Kennedy was an implacable Cold Warrior. They point out that as early as 1961 he was saying, “the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient … we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind. ” They note, also, how often he showed restraint—in resisting loud demands to invade Cuba or to smash the Berlin Wall, in accepting compromise on Laos, in taking pains not to discomfort Khrushchev unnecessarily in the missile crisis. “Most conspicuous,” wrote the critic Hannah Arendt, ”… were the extremes to which he did not go.” The historian Henry Pachter, who was critical of much of the President’s performance, stated, “Kennedy’s true claim to fame in matters of foreign policy is his genuine reversal of American attitudes to the Third World,” especially in encouraging acceptance of neutralism and socialism and in taking “long shots” on “unsafe leaders” like Nkrumah. If the Alliance for Progress was flawed, it nonetheless represented a new attitude. Kennedy is perceived as an innovator who established the Peace Corps, which sent volunteers from Togo to Sarawak; negotiated the Test Ban Treaty, a first step, in his words, toward getting “the genie back in the bottle”; and set up the hotline between the Pentagon and the Kremlin. (It was first tested while Kennedy was in office, and a puzzled Russian operator replied, “Please explain what is meant by a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog.”) His defenders claim either that Kennedy had already made plans to withdraw from Vietnam or that, given what one knows about him, it is unreasonable to assume that he would have persisted as Johnson did. “He would have understood the opposition to the war as it arose,” the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has written, “and he would not have let his own ego get in the way of adjusting to the country’s deepening perception.” Finally, his proponents note that his American University speech in June 1963 departed abruptly from the rhetoric of the Cold War. “For, in the final analysis,” Kennedy said, “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”


Perhaps the most judicious appreciation of Kennedy has come from a man who might have been expected to have been a critic, the socialist Michael Harrington, who said in 1973: “The claim I make for his historic significance is both restrained and major. Within the limits of the possible, as defined by his own pragmatic liberalism and the reactionary congressional power arrayed against it, he developed to a surprising degree. How far he would have gone, we will never know. (Robert Kennedy, who survived his brother by a little less than five years, spent them in making the most extraordinary pilgrimage a practicing politician has ever traveled. What if John Kennedy had had those years too?) John F. Kennedy … must be judged not as a shining knight nor as a failed hero but as a man of his time and place.… He was not, of course, a radical and it is silly to accuse him, as some of his disillusioned followers have, of not having carried out basic transformations of the system. That was never his intention and had it been the people would not have elected him President.

“And yet, within the context of his political and personal limitations, John F. Kennedy grew enormously. He arrived at the White House a young, and not terribly distinguished, senator from the Eisenhower years with a tiny margin of victory and a Dixiecrat-Republican majority against him in the Congress.

“The America which inaugurated him in January, 1961, still believed in the verities of the Cold War (as did Kennedy in his speech of that day), in the sanctity of the balanced budget, and it had not begun to come to terms with that great mass movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The America which mourned John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, was different. It was not transformed—but it was better. That was Kennedy’s modest and magnificent achievement.”

In the years to come, historians, while continuing to refine their estimates of Kennedy, will probably conclude that there is more to the history of this time than deciding whether Kennedy deserves to be admitted to the Valhalla of “Great Presidents,” assigned to the vestibule of the “near great” or shoved into more crowded quarters with all the rest.

The subject invites the attention of the social historian and the cultural historian. William Carleton has reflected on Kennedy as a romantic hero: “Strange that he should have come out of the America of the machine and mass production. Or is it? People in our prosaic age, particularly young Americans, were yearning for a romantic hero, as the James Dean cult among our youth reveals. Now they have an authentic one.” Mark Gelfand, an authority on the history of the city, has pointed out that Kennedy was the spokesman of postindustrial America, of a metropolitan sophistication far removed from the sensibility of an Al Smith. (When Kennedy first ran for office, an observer noted with astonishment that “he never even went to a wake unless he knew the deceased personally.”) Kennedy, the critic David Bazelon has written, succeeded in “ridding us at last of Abe’s log cabin … and allowing us to enter a twentieth-century fantasy with city immigrants as heroes, instead of homesteading farmers.”

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.”


THE MYTHMAKERS FOCUSED on Kennedy as romantic hero, in part because Kennedy sometimes perceived himself in this manner. After his death his widow remarked: “Once … I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was. You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough. For Jack, history was full of heroes. ” In his very first race for Congress in 1946, Kennedy would tell his boon companion Dave Powers: “Years from now you can say you were with me on Saint Crispin’s Day. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. ” Perhaps not everything that Powers remembers occurred quite as he recounts it, but the story gains credence from the fact that Kennedy did know the Saint Crispin’s Day passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V by heart, and during a performance by Basil Rathbone at the White House, the President’s only request was for that speech. Benjamin Bradlee noted that he “had a Walter Mitty streak in him, as wide as his smile. On the golf course, when he was winning, he reminded himself most of Arnold Palmer in raw power, or Julius Boros in finesse. When he was losing, he was ‘the old warrior’ at the end of a brilliant career, asking only that his faithful caddy point him in the right direction, and let instinct take over.”

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.”


As important as this occasion was in establishing the romantic legend, Jacqueline Kennedy contributed even more in a subsequent interview with Theodore White. She told him: “At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot. ” She emphasized: “There’ll be great Presidents again—and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me—but there’ll never be another Camelot again.” The rubric Camelot quickly made its way into the historical literature. Indeed, Samuel Eliot Morison ended his 1965 chronicle The Oxford History of the American People with the lyrics from the Loewe-Lerner musical, including the words: “That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory—called Camelot.”

It is unlikely that historians will ever again give so much credence to the conception of Camelot, but Kennedy’s place in our history as the romantic hero, cruelly slain in his prime, seems secure. As the columnist Gerald Johnson observed: “Logical analysis will certainly be applied to Kennedy’s career, and will have about as much effect on his position in history as Mrs. Partington’s mop had upon the Atlantic tide. … Historians may protest, logicians may rave, but they cannot alter the fact that any kind of man, once touched by romance, is removed from all categories and is comparable only with the legendary. … Already it has happened to two of the 35 men who have held the Presidency, rendering them incapable of analysis by the instruments of scholarship; and now Washington, the god-like, and Lincoln, the saintly, have been joined by Kennedy, the Young Chevalier.”

Like the fair youth on Keats’s Grecian urn, Kennedy will be forever in pursuit, forever unfulfilled, but also “for ever young,” beyond the power of time and the words of historians.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.