A student, probably in his 30s, raised his hand not long ago in one of my American history classes when I introduced a unit dealing with John F. Kennedy and the 1960s. “He’s one of my heroes,” said the student, who must have been born nearly a generation after Kennedy’s 1963 death. When I asked why, he replied simply: “His style. The way he seemed to do things.”
Fifty years after his death, John F. Kennedy and his style or his legacy or his martyrdom or all of the above have placed him not only in the consciousness of one history student but, for now, in the foreground of mass media exposure in America.
“American Experience” on PBS is set to roll out a four-hour JFK documentary on Nov. 11. Life magazine has a commemorative issue, “The Day Kennedy Died,” on display in countless supermarket lines. Political scientist Larry Sabato has a new book that seems to cover it all: “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.”
I’ve seen no treatment on that scale of Richard Nixon’s birth centennial this year or the 40th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s death at his ranch in Texas. That’s hardly a surprise since, for most of us, the one word associated with Johnson is “Vietnam,” and with Nixon, “Watergate.”
So why does Kennedy stand out?
First, Kennedy’s shocking death instantly became intensely personal in 1963 — and still does, in muted, digital form, for people like my student who were not even alive in 1963. It was akin to the loss of a specific family member, even for children who could not escape the grief being experienced in their homes or classrooms. Today, Kennedy’s speeches, public appearances, phone calls (now available via YouTube), even a film clip of his death ensure that new generations become familiar with him.
Second, Kennedy controlled his image in ways other presidents scarcely imagined. Granted, the two Roosevelts made masterful use of new media in their times — Theodore (film) and Franklin (radio). But John Kennedy’s image began to be crafted long before his election to the presidency in 1960. The countless documentaries of his life rely on a seemingly limitless source of home movies made possible by a millionaire father who understood the power of the movie camera in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and recognized the compelling interest of the public in “private” family activities like sailing or touch football.
That consciousness of image pervaded his administration, too. Kennedy began using the cool, clean lines of the State Department auditorium as the backdrop for his first TV news conferences. The Kennedy administration created the colorful, even regal arrival ceremony for visiting heads of state on the South Lawn of the White House. And JFK was conscious of the power of news photos showing him with his young children or beautiful wife (who had her own driving sense of image as well).
All this image building for Kennedy was done without a simultaneous, skeptical scrutiny by the press or general public. Even before Kennedy died, standards for news reporting (broadcast and print) were changing rapidly, and by the time Richard Nixon resigned under fire in 1974, the wall that had protected Kennedy and his private shenanigans had collapsed.
It might well be that John Kennedy’s good timing is the best explanation for why he is on newsstands 50 years after his death. He was vague about what he would do about communism in Vietnam. He was cautious on civil rights. His fundraising and campaign practices sparked little public attention. Johnson and Nixon had to make more explicit choices, and the consequences of their decisions became clear before they left office.
But Kennedy’s ability to move Americans, through his words, his ideas, and, yes, his image, remains as clear today as it was in 1963. That may be his most important legacy.
Tom McCord teaches history at the Bangor campus of the University of Maine at Augusta, which will host a conference for the public, “Camelot to Chaos: Inventing the Sixties,” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8. Retired WABI-TV anchorman Don Colson will host a free luncheon session on Kennedy as part of the conference, all at Eastport Hall, 128 Texas Avenue.