Contributed by Felix M. Larkin
To mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Kennedy presidency, the JFK Presidential Library in Boston recently hosted a conference bringing together a number of historians, journalists and former officials of the administration to discuss the man and his place in history. The stellar list of participants included Harris Wofford (JFK’s special assistant for civil rights), Richard Reeves (historian and JFK biographer), Ted Widner (a former Clinton speechwriter) and journalists Matt Bai and Gwen Ifill. I attended the conference while on a short holiday in the US.
The Library is a centre of study and research, but also a shrine to JFK’s memory. You would not expect a conference there to be critical of him, and nor was this one. It seemed to me, however, that the participants made a strong case for Kennedy – certainly a remarkable president, one who might have been among the very greatest but for the brevity of his time in office. Their analysis of his achievements emphasised the following five points:
1. John F. Kennedy was a “transformational” president – the first born in the 20th century, the first Roman Catholic, the first to be “self selecting” (by claiming the nomination through winning primaries, rather than being the choice of the party bosses) and the first to master the medium of television.
2. He was a president of the “vital centre, for whom the centre held” (to quote Harris Wofford). Wofford described him as “a light for today” in building a political consensus, something Obama is having difficulty doing. JFK was able to do it because he reached beyond Congress to the people to garner support for his policies and because, to quote himself, he was an “idealist without illusions” who could compromise in order to achieve some progress, even if it fell short of his ideal.
3. Notwithstanding foreign policy failures at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, he rose to the challenge of Soviet pressure both in Berlin and during the Cuban missile crisis– and the Soviets backed down. There then followed the first nuclear weapons test ban treaty. Ted Widner remarked that it was hard to recapture today the real fear of nuclear Armageddon that the world had in the late 1950s and early 1960s. JFK defused that threat, and left the world a safer place.
4. He was a gifted orator. According to Richard Reeves, the great US presidents realised that words are at least as important as deeds. He argued that we remember, even revere, past presidents largely for their rhetoric. JFK is up there with the best in this regard (Lincoln, FDR and Reagan) – and Obama too will be remembered for this reason.
5. He captured the imagination and idealism of the American people as few other Presidents have done, partly by tapping into the sense of possibility which is at the heart of the American dream. The “New Frontier” was his variation on that old theme. Matt Bai pointed out that the JFK presidency was the last time Americans felt hopeful about their politics.
The conference was opened by JFK’s daughter, Caroline, speaking by phone from New York; she had intended to be there in person, but had to cry off because of snow. She spoke about how her father was now, after 50 years, ceasing to be part of our living memory and becoming instead part of history. This conference was an important milestone in that transition.
Felix M. Larkin is a freelance historian and writer. He is chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland and author of Terror and Discord: The Shemus Cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal, 1920-1924 (Dublin, 2009).