John Kennedy’s true legacy is not measured by any political decisions of his administration, but by the social revolutions that were the inevitable consequence of the mix of optimism and crisis that marked his presidency.
In the four decades since his death, John Kennedy’s life and presidency has been the subject of wild fluctuations of fortune. In the sixties, a series of laudatory books, mainly written by his trusted inner circle was published celebrating their hero. Inevitably for a man who reached such heights the fall was heavy as a number of revisionist’s books in the seventies and eighties chronicled Kennedy’s addictions to junk sex, involvement with the mafia and even the death of Marilyn Monroe.
His legacy degenerated from the man of peace and the civil rights knight of Camelot to that of a dangerous cold war warrior with a luke warm commitment to the black movement and the man who started America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Recent assessments may be more balanced, finding both achievement and failure, but the days of Kennedy as the paragon of the modern American president have vanished.
However, a continued focus on his personal life and on the political decisions of his administration inevitably misses his real legacy – the social revolutions of the sixties.
Kennedy’s election was a landmark social and political event in both American history and through American dominance of politics and culture, world history. His victory was a death knoll to sincerely held beliefs about age and religion (he was improbably young and Catholic) and institutional authority. The message was clear, if you wanted something badly enough it was yours for the taking, whatever the obstacles. As Kennedy himself said in answer to a question in 1960 about why he thought he should be President: “I look around me at the others in the race, and I say to myself, well, if they think they can do it, why not me? Why not me? That’s the answer. And I think it’s enough”. If our current world is marked by a breakdown in what is seen as traditional authority, look no further than Kennedy’s election for a precursor.
His youth and religion worried Kennedy more than any other issue during the campaign. The answer was to tackle the religious issue head on (“no one asked me if I was Catholic when I went to war”) and to turn his youth to an advantage. This was achieved by running a campaign that stressed the stagnation of the fifties and promised to get the country moving again. Vitality was his central message and his central image. Norman Mailer wrote of Kennedy at the Democratic convention at Los Angeles in 1960 as an existential hero and that with him “we as a nation would finally be loose again in the historic seas of a national psych which was willy-nilly and at last, again, adventurous”.
The vision of an optimistic future lay at the very heart of Kennedy’s campaign and he carried it through to his inauguration. He preached a new frontier of economic prosperity, social justice and peace. Active citizenship (ask not what your country can do…) was demanded and a joy of life promised.
However, Kennedy always tempered his message of optimism and call to arms with warnings of the perils of nuclear war. His campaign speeches, acceptance speech at the convention and his inauguration speech were peppered with warnings of a nuclear holocaust and the need to actively pursue an alternative cause.
His presidency was a reflection of these competing messages. There could be no better example of the boundless possibilities for humanity than sending man to the moon, a task undertaken because it would be “impressive to mankind” and because of its unparalleled difficulty. There could be no better example of the fragility of nuclear peace than the Cuban missile crises, which took everyone to the brink of oblivion.
Optimism makes people push beyond their limits as they lose the fear of consequences and the heady optimism of the Kennedy years together with the shadow of peril served only to intensify and speed up the process. Kennedy had himself shown the path with his breaking of authority and the relentless image of his continued youth and glamour kept him centre stage throughout his presidency. America responded with unprecedented social revolution. Civil rights, the woman’s movement, the beat authors, music and drugs all flowered in the early sixties as society underwent fundamental change.
The final act of the Kennedy presidency, his assassination only served to deepen the process. Life had to be fulfilled without hesitation; no one was safe from arbitrary acts of violence, even the presidency. If it taught nothing else, his death taught everyone the fragility of life. No wonder there has been a yearning for conspiracy, for darker forces to explain why he died, without such a reason his death becomes nothing more than random.
Richard Reeves, the American presidential historian said, “Kennedy was a surpassing cultural figure – an artist, like Picasso, who changed the way people looked at things” This was his legacy. The debates may rage about his policy over Vietnam, his personal life and his legislative record, but all such argument misses the larger sweep of his effect on America. John Kennedy changed the way people looked at their world and in doing so they changed their own lives.