“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.…
No one ever assumed the office under brighter personal auspices or with a finer opportunity to cope with its enormous difficulties…. Mr. Kennedy not only can afford to be courageous now; he cannot afford to be anything else. Mr. Kennedy is intelligent and energetic; probably these considerations are clear to him. If so, he should have a successful administration. The Nation, which has seen many Presidents come and go, wishes him godspeed on a journey perilous to him and to all of us.
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Nation writers vigorously debated the meaning of Kennedy’s presidency during his 1,036 days in office. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, in one of his annual essays on civil rights for The Nation, expressed dismay with the slow progress the administration made on that defining issue during its first year in power:
The Kennedy Administration in 1961 waged an essentially cautious and defensive struggle for civil rights against an unyielding adversary. As the year unfolded, Executive initiative became increasingly feeble, and the chilling prospect emerged of a general Administration retreat. In backing away from an Executive order to end discrimination in housing, the President did more to undermine confidence in his intentions than could be offset by a series of smaller accomplishments during the year. He has begun 1962 with a show of renewed aggressiveness; one can only hope that it will be sustained.
Indeed, Kennedy did issue such an order in November 1962, but in his 1964 report, published less than four months after the president’s assassination, King wrote that the order was “conspicuously flawed with compromise and to this date has not significantly altered any housing patterns.”
Other Nation writers took exception with the young, glamorous president’s treatment in the press. In “The Kennedy Cult” (August 11, 1962), Sister Mary Paul Paye stoked widespread controversy by writing that the public’s fawning over JFK amounted to an undignified identification of the president with the country:
Because of the cult of personality, to the average man everywhere Mr. Kennedy has become synonymous with the United States; his victories are American victories; his health, American health; his smile, his family, his hobbies, his likes and dislikes, become symbolic of the country. And the danger of this equation is that should the President fail, then the country fails; should he make a mistake, the country errs….
In the measure that the cult grows, the tendency will grow stronger to elect Presidents not on the basis of reason, but on the basis of the emotional pull the candidates engender…
The cult is dangerous because it seems as innocent as a baby’s picture, as simple as a man’s smile, because it is public and yet unseen. Even if events conspire so that no limitation of freedom occurs because of it, it is still an appalling trend; for it is symptomatic of an American disease: mental apathy.
United Press International syndicated a story about Sister Paye’s article headlined, “Nun Writes Blast on Kennedy Image.”
And still other Nation writers analyzed the president’s style of politics and his commitment—or perceived lack thereof—to any definite political philosophy other than opportunism. The Daily News journalist Ted Lewis, in “Kennedy: Profile of a Technician” (February 2, 1963), argued that Kennedy’s vague ideological commitments had a pernicious effect on America’s image abroad.
Any examination of his operations to date suggests the basic reason for the fog over the Kennedy image. His methods and style vary, and the unfortunate impression is left that they vary with the economic, political and global climate. This flexibility suggests to some the lack of deep-rooted political ideals and purposefulness in connection with domestic policy. More serious is the effect of his apparent opportunism in the foreign-affairs arena. Even the simplest pronouncement by the President on a cold-war policy problem raises doubts abroad whether it carries the conviction of real intentions.
About all that can be guaranteed,” Lewis concluded, somewhat eerily, “is that life in these United States, as long as Kennedy is in the White House, is likely to be exciting—and somewhat insecure.”
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Our first issue after the assassination bore an editorial simply titled “John F. Kennedy,” echoing the plaintive mood in the country at large, while also weighing the meaning of the tragedy and the precise nature of his legacy.
A young President, John F. Kennedy must have known or sensed that he did not have all time and eternity to accomplish his major objectives. He was in a hurry to reach the top and he was not long in reaching it. Once there he wanted to get things done, to spin the wheels faster, to move along. It was as though he kept hearing at his back “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” But long before his tragic death he had learned that great as is the power of the American Presidency—and of the American nation—our ability to shape the course of events is not unlimited….
We had begun, under his maturing leadership, to cut back arms spending, to reduce some military commitments, to explore the possibilities for a gradual reduction of tensions—in a word, to make the great turn toward peace. John F. Kennedy will be remembered with affection and admiration for many fine qualities and achievements but above all for the fact that, after some false turns and starts, he set in motion the great task of directing American power toward broader objectives than deterrence and containment.
The same issue also carried testimonials from senators and congressmen who had worked with Kennedy. “I pray that our country continues on the course he set—one of domestic growth and fairness and of external peace,” wrote Rhode Island Senator and longtime Kennedy friend Claiborne Pell. Ernest Gruening, one of Alaska’s first two senators and a former Nation managing editor, wrote: “Articulate, witty, gay, gallant, courageous, his untimely death leaves a tragic void in the lives of all of us.”
We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…
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Twenty-five years ago, and twenty-five years after the assassination, the late Nation writer and editor Andrew Kopkind struck roughly the same balance in an article on “J.F.K.’s Legacy” (December 5, 1988). Kennedy’s administration, he wrote, was
vastly more admired in retrospect than in full swing, and if it were not for the tragic curtain twenty-five years ago in Dallas, the memory of that brief period would doubtless have a different cast. The dreamy, Arcadian quality of the thousand days of John Kennedy is an attribute of national re-vision, a nostalgic remembrance of things past not necessarily as they were but as they came to be seen….
What Kennedy did better than any President since Roosevelt, and what makes him a special kind of leader in American annals, was to mobilize a broad generational constituency—even if he was unable, by fate or his own limitations, to direct it to significant political change in his lifetime. There was no Kennedy Revolution. Kennedy’s greatness now consists of some parts myth and sentiment, but his leadership went beyond mere celebrity and style, and it is doubtful that we will see such sparkle in the White House before the century ends.
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