The Enduring Mystery of JFK

This new flood of JFK literature comes on top of the already 40,000 or so books that have been written about Kennedy. And yet, JFK is still mysterious and elusive. Misconceptions about Kennedy persist.
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The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy has come, gone, and left a tidal wave of books, essays and commemorative magazines about the life and career of one of America's most storied political figures. This new flood of JFK literature comes on top of the already 40,000 or so books that have been written about Kennedy. And yet, JFK is still mysterious and elusive. Misconceptions about Kennedy persist.

1- JFK was a natural politician.

JFK was, in most settings, a quiet and reserved man. He was often described by congressional colleagues as cool, even distant. To put it another way: he was more like Barack Obama than Ted Kennedy. Unlike his brother Ted, JFK did not enjoy the bantering, glad-handing aspect of politics. He even worried that his personality was not sufficiently exuberant and compelling to succeed in presidential politics. JFK was a loner and an introvert; he once confessed that when sitting on a plane he preferred reading a book to chatting with the person seated next to him.

2- JFK was a riveting public speaker.

While Kennedy delivered some stirring speeches, especially late in his political career, he was not a natural public speaker. He had a flat voice with a heavy Boston accent and his delivery often lacked emotion and force. Kennedy could be academic, pedantic and even tone deaf--citing Greek philosophers, Roman historians, and British military history when speaking to ranchers in Laramie, Wyoming or farmers in Springfield, Illinois.

3- JFK dreamed of being the next FDR.

On a personal level, JFK had decidedly mixed feelings about Franklin Roosevelt. He resented FDR's treatment of his father. In Kennedy's view, FDR embraced Joseph Kennedy when it was useful for him and discarded him when he was a liability. Moreover, JFK disliked Roosevelt's transactional, deal-cutting approach to politics. His real aspiration was to be a statesman-scholar along the lines of his hero Winston Churchill. He wanted to be a leader who commanded armies, but also wrote elegant prose and gave lofty speeches -- a leader who could marry the often competing worlds of ideas and action.

4- JFK had a brief and inconsequential congressional career.

In fact, John Kennedy served in Congress for nearly fourteen years; six years in the House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate. This is far more federal elective experience than most other American presidents have had.

While JFK's Senate career has been dismissed by some as little more than an eight-year steppingstone to the White House, it was far more consequential. Many of his speeches on international affairs were remarkably impressive, especially his 1954 prediction about a coming French debacle in Vietnam and his prescient warnings in 1957 about the fall of France's colonial empire in Algeria. Senator Kennedy also offered creative proposals on how to induce Eastern European nations to break free from the Soviet Union, restructure America's foreign assistance programs, and craft a strategy for nuclear disarmament.

Senator John F. Kennedy displayed significant talent and striking star power as he shrewdly positioned himself to run for president in 1960. Kennedy accomplished what only two other senators -- Warren Harding in 1920 and Barack Obama in 2008 -- have done. He used his Senate seat to win direct election to the presidency.

5-JFK and LBJ had a contentious, even stormy relationship.

To be sure, JFK and LBJ had completely different personalities, skills, educations, and family backgrounds. They would never be friends or fully trusting partners. But they could be -- and often were -- allies, albeit of the wary and cautious variety.

As the Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson was respectful and polite to JFK, at least to his face. More importantly, he gave Kennedy a much coveted seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1957 which JFK referred to frequently during his presidential campaign to underscore his foreign policy expertise. Kennedy, while put off by Johnson's crudity, admired LBJ's deft use of power and his legislative acumen. And LBJ, while critical of Kennedy in many respects, grew to respect Kennedy as a skilled politician who was far tougher and more formidable than many appreciated.

6- JFK's charisma propelled him to the presidency.

While he could be charming, JFK's successful run for the presidency in 1960 was the result of a compelling political narrative and very hard work.

JFK shrewdly crafted an identity as a young, energetic, forward-looking politician who was also deeply steeped in American history. A Pulitzer Prize winner for biography and his reputation as the Senate's informal historian conferred upon him gravitas.

As for hard work, JFK decided to run for the 1960 Democratic nomination during the Thanksgiving weekend in 1956, just a few months after he narrowly lost the Democratic vice presidential nomination. He was the first candidate to launch a four year drive for the presidency and he simply outworked his opponents. His aides were astonished at his disciplined, relentless campaigning. Kennedy's ample financial resources didn't hurt his cause.

7- JFK's televised debates with Richard Nixon were the decisive factor in his 1960 presidential victory.

There is little dispute that JFK did well during his four nationally televised debates with Vice President Richard Nixon during the 1960 campaign, especially the first one in Chicago. But his performances did not put the race away and the idea that JFK won these debates decisively is an exaggerated retrospective claim. As important to the outcome of the election was Nixon's complicated, even strained, relationship with President Dwight Eisenhower. Perhaps to prove that he could succeed on his own, Nixon barely used the hugely popular Eisenhower in the campaign. JFK privately worried in the campaign's final weeks that Eisenhower would weigh in on the race forcefully, swinging the election in Nixon's favor.

8- JFK's Inaugural Address was the most important speech of 1961 and one of the great addresses in American history.

JFK's Inaugural Address is generally seen as one of the best of the 20th century, but it might have been only the second best speech delivered by an American president during the third week of January, 1961. Dwight Eisenhower's "Farewell Address," given four days before JFK's Inaugural, warned of the dangers of a military industrial complex and America's over-extension in the world. It garnered much less press at the time but probably stands up better before what JFK once called "The High Court of History."

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