“There is more to Senator Jack Kennedy,” the journalist Frederic W. Collins wrote in the April 4, 1959, issue of The Nation, “than a coiffure arranged, during his plastic years, by facing South in a strong East wind.”
That early judgment—bemused condescension offset by a cautiously positive appraisal—marked The Nation’s coverage of John F. Kennedy during his Senate career, presidential campaign and abbreviated administration.
As the world marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination this month, there is much to be gained from looking at how his presidency was regarded in its own time. Kennedy arrived on the national political scene as neither a Great Man of History nor as an especially reliable standard-bearer of liberalism, as a reading of The Nation’s articles about him reveals. Rather, at least from this magazine’s perspective at the time, the swift rise of John F. Kennedy from relative obscurity signaled an troubling privileging of image over content: in a dispatch from the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Nation editor Carey McWilliams wrote of “the hollow, synthetic quality of the Kennedy movement.” He also noted that
the paradox of this convention has been that a young man without an impressive political record, without a program, without broad rank-and-file support, backed by not a single interest group with the possible exception of labor, not merely won the nomination of a great party without substantial opposition, but took possession of it, lock, stock and barrel. The delegates were victims of a default of political leadership which was premised, of course, on their own default as citizens.
Moreover, the sudden dominance of Kennedy’s prominent family in the Democratic Party was taken as a sign of the unseemly influence of money in the public sphere: “The most notable thing about Mr. Kennedy,” Collins continued in his 1959 assessment of the presidential field, “is that he needs to form no organization because he was born into one.”
But at the same time, The Nation recognized the great promise that Kennedy represented and, with a few frustrating exceptions, the fundamentally progressive nature of his politics. When Kennedy won the general election in November 1960—beating by only 100,000 popular votes Vice President Richard Nixon, who in the words of Frederic Collins had based his campaign on the conclusion “that sadism is the stronger strain in the psychopathology of American politics”—The Nation wrote in an editorial:
A man may aspire to the Presidency for a number of reasons—ambition, vanity, love of country, love of power, a sense of responsibility, and so on. But, whatever his motives, he cannot justify them, even in the privacy of his own mind, unless he is resolved to promote the welfare of a majority of his fellow Americans and the long-range interests of the country as well as he can. In short, he must take his oath of office literally if he is to succeed, in his own estimation and the verdict of history. This opportunity Mr. Kennedy now has, and to a degree shared by few of his predecessors. A majority of his fellow citizens, taking him at his word, have avowed their receptivity to the basic idea of dynamic progress and the subsidiary ideas needed to make it a reality. They have repudiated the essentially static philosophy of the Republican Party and embraced new leadership. Not only new, but young leadership: Mr. Kennedy is the youngest man ever to be elected to the office. He symbolizes the rise to power of a new generation.…