Wednesday, November 9, 2011

JFK: A President of Firsts

Philip White

This week marked the 51st anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s election victory, which saw him become the 35th President of the United States. The Camelot myth aside, he was undeniably a President of firsts:

• The first President to win the office at age 43, and the first "Chief Executive" born in the twentieth century.

• The first Catholic in the White House. It is easy to forget how difficult it was for the Kennedy clan (JFK’s father, Joseph–the US Ambassador to Britain who FDR pressured into resigning in November 1940–masterminded his son’s career) to overcome Protestant opposition to their faith during the campaign.

• The first President to win the Pulitzer Prize. His book, Profiles in Courage, which highlighted the bravery of John Quincy Adams and seven other U.S. Senators claimed the award in 1955. Interestingly, it was patterned on Winston Churchill’s Great Contemporaries, which was not the only literary connection between the two. Kennedy’s Harvard thesis, Why England Slept, (published by Wilfred Funk in 1940 after several big publishers rejected the manuscript) was a play on Churchill’s While England Slept, which examined Germany’s militarism and England’s failure to stem Hitler’s ambitions. Churchill went one better, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for his war memoirs. On April 1, 1963, Kennedy conferred honorary citizenship on his literary and rhetorical hero.

• A participant in the first televised Presidential election debates, with Richard M. Nixon. Popular opinion contends that the first debate was a turning point in the campaign. The dashing Massachusetts senator and the Vice President were opposites in style and appearance–Kennedy fit and poised, Nixon unattractive and growling. The encounters moderated by Howard K. Smith (a pioneer of broadcast journalism and one of the Murrow Boys) also changed the campaigning landscape for good, and put a premium on candidates’ ability to come across well on the small screen. It’s fascinating to me that last year (yes, 2010) saw the first televised debates in British electoral history. That’s half a century after the US got in on the game!

• The first celebrity Presidential couple. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were the most photographed, most fawned-over political partners in history. As in the debates, his camera-ready appearance helped, though he was often overshadowed by his gorgeous fashion queen.

• The first President to engage in a high-stakes encounter with a nuke-ready Soviet Union. The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis saw the world on the brink of mutually assured destruction, and yet Kennedy’s cool head prevailed.

• The first President to take on the hitherto unchecked power of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Aided by his brother, Attorney General and best friend, Robert, JFK sought to limit the jurisdiction of Hoover’s FBI fiefdom, and to reduce the clout of the irrepressible man who had ruled it since 1924.

What he could have achieved if death had not claimed him early, we can never know. But what is certain is that John F. Kennedy was a man of extraordinary talents who, despite his detractors’ vilification (and, certainly with regard to his philandering, some of their criticism is just), presided over heady and turbulent times with a grace and restraint few other politicians could have matched.

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