Modern Mythology

By Wendy S. Loughlin

November 22, 2013

Fifty years later, JFK still resonates

It was sunny that day in June of 1957 when John F. Kennedy came to Syracuse University. He was the junior senator from Massachusetts, but he was already eying the presidency, and already testing the rhetoric—a call to public service, an appeal to young people—that would later mark his administration.

June 3, 1957: JFK at SU SU Archives

Standing on the platform at SU’s Archbold Stadium—a 20,000-seat open-air venue patterned after the amphitheaters of the ancient Greeks and Romans—Kennedy delivered his commencement address. He described what he saw as the lofty call of politics and urged the Class of 1957 toward “the application of your talents to the public solution of the great problems of our time.”

Warren Kimble ’57 was there. He had just completed a bachelor in fine arts degree at what is now the College of Visual and Performing Arts and, as class president, marched across the stage as a representative of his fellow graduates and accepted his diploma directly from JFK. “It was a great honor for me,” says Kimble, now a celebrated folk artist living in Vermont. It was also an honor, he says, to listen to a speech by a man who would come to be regarded as one of the great orators of the 20th century. Kimble still remembers his message. “He was already starting to encourage people to enter politics and to do good stuff. That’s the part that we all remember—that he encouraged us to be active and proactive… to go into political life, to make change.”

Kennedy was on the cusp of a swift rise to the presidency: he would announce his candidacy less than three years later, in January 1960, and would be elected president the following November.

But the November we associate with John F. Kennedy is not the triumphant November of 1960. It’s the tragic November of 1963 when, in Dallas, riding down Elm Street in an open car with his wife, he was killed by an assassin, and his presidency came to an end after a brief 1,000 days.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of his death and with it a deluge: books, articles, documentaries, television shows, commemorative magazines, “never before seen” photographs, even a major motion picture have all been released this fall in the name of JFK. The deluge is symptomatic of a kind of perfect storm of factors that raised Kennedy to icon status, and keep him there still. It seems clear that, though half a century has passed, for many Americans—including many who are too young to remember him—the image of John F. Kennedy is still incredibly powerful.

Made for Television

“The myth-making started from day one,” says Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair of Political Reporting at the Newhouse School. “They had the PR operation to beat all PR operations. With Kennedy, the image-makers had far more control than they do now. And they had such good material to work with.”

JFK and Jackie Kennedy in 1961 Wikimedia Commons

John Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were famously young, attractive, wealthy and charismatic, and they became national figures just as the fledgling medium of television was coming into its own. Fewer than 1 percent of American homes had television sets in 1947, the year Harry S. Truman became the first president to give a televised speech. By the time Kennedy was elected in 1960, that number had skyrocketed to 90 percent. It was a happy coincidence for the telegenic president. “Kennedy seemed almost like he was made for television, like he was cast for the television era,” says Robert Thompson, director of Newhouse’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

He was also savvy about it. Margaret Thompson, an associate professor of history and political science in SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs who teaches the Modern Presidency course, says that while JFK was not, in fact, “the first TV president” as he is often called (two previous presidents had appeared on television), “he was more aware of media than Truman or Eisenhower had been.” And in an article published in TV Guide a year before he was elected, Kennedy seems almost predictive when he writes: “…A new breed of candidates has sprung up on both the state and national levels. Most of these men are comparatively young. Their youth may still be a handicap in the eyes of older politicians—but it is definitely an asset in creating a television image people like and (most difficult of all) remember.”

For Kennedy, it started when he squared off against Richard Nixon in a series of four debates during the 1960 campaign. This was the first time presidential debates had been televised and the history books record that those who listened on radio felt Nixon had won, while those who watched on television felt Kennedy had won. Though Robert Thompson calls that statistic “suspect”—there exist separate surveys of radio listeners and TV viewers, but nothing that makes this sort of comparison between the two, he says—the assertion has become a perennial favorite in the Kennedy story.

Kennedy at a press conference Wikimedia Commons

In fact, for most Americans, the Legend of Kennedy is marked by moments first (and repeatedly) shown on television: The soaring “Ask not what your country can do for you” of his inaugural speech in 1961; the elegance of his wife as she led viewers on a televised tour of the White House on Valentine’s Day in 1962; the famed “Kennedy wit,” on full display at press conferences (the first to be televised) held throughout his presidency; even home movie footage of the president and first lady with their small children, sailing off the coast of Cape Cod. “It all was melded with TV, which is such an emotional medium,” says Grimes. “Everything about it makes you feel like you were there and a part of it—like you experienced this.”

At the same time, the relationship between the president and the press in the early 1960s was vastly different than it is now, a distinction that allowed for the obfuscation of the kind of personal flaws that would topple—or at least seriously damage—a presidential administration today. Revelations and allegations about JFK’s philandering and severe health problems, now common knowledge among the public, went unreported or undetected by a largely male, white and middle-aged press corps. “You just didn’t do that,” says Grimes. “It was considered that public figures could have a private life.” In a pre-Watergate time, she says, journalists often had a collegial relationship with politicians, but things have since become far more acrimonious and adversarial.

Today, Grimes says, there seems to be a “destructionist movement” in American society. “We can’t look at any public figure, no matter who it is, without trying to find the warts and the clay feet,” she says. “We just don’t want to have heroes anymore. And that, I think, has something to do with why Kennedy lingers in that mythology.”

Margaret Thompson agrees. “We don’t have anyone to fill that need—to have a King Arthur figure, to have someone we can romanticize.” She says undergraduate students in her classes today—they’re too young to remember JFK and in many cases, so are their parents—often point to Kennedy as one of the last inspirational leaders. “I think they are so used to presidents being controversial. In the aftermath of Watergate, in the aftermath of the Cold War, we do not know what to expect from our president. We do not have a new paradigm.” And while we do expect to know everything about our elected officials, “some people wish for a time that’s more innocent, a time that’s more mythic,” she says.

“I think by and large most [young people] want to be asked more of,” says Grimes. “I think most of them want to be told they can make a difference and shown how they can make a difference. That’s what Kennedy embodied.”

The Loss of Hope

As the public felt connected to its first family like never before, a sense of excitement grew up around the Kennedys. “There was something of a glow, there was that touch of glamor that was unusual and there was a feeling of being part of something that was changing the world,” says Grimes. “Very early, the ‘Kennedy mystique’ became its own reality.” Perhaps as a result, Kennedy was one of the most popular sitting presidents, and his overall average approval rating remains unmatched to this day. “The Kennedys were American popular culture’s closest thing to a royal family,” says Robert Thompson.

1962: The Kennedys host French Minister of Cultural Affairs Andre Malraux at the White House Wikimedia Commons

JFK’s popularity seemed greatest among the Baby Boomers, who were just coming of age as he entered the White House, and were captivated by this man who, at 43, was the youngest ever to be elected president, and the first of his generation. “Certainly he was very exciting to people who were just beginning to become politically aware,” says Margaret Thompson. For many Boomers, Kennedy was their gateway to a future that seemed full of promise. “JFK and Jackie were central to a kind of emerging new cultural era that came after the Second World War,” says Robert Thompson. “There really was this sense of change. Think of the nicknames we have for this administration: Camelot and the New Frontier—all these hopeful kinds of things.”

But it is the loss of hope that lies at the center of the John F. Kennedy story, and just as mass media had helped to create his image, mass media coverage of his assassination—and the incredible events surrounding it—would catapult him to mythic status.

JFK and his wife arrived at Dallas’ Love Field at 11:40 a.m. CST on Nov. 22, 1963. Pressed behind a chain-link fence, throngs of excited Texans were waiting to greet them, and the president obliged, briefly delaying the motorcade to shake hands and say thanks. Jackie Kennedy, her arms full of red roses, followed him to the fence. She was dressed in a bright pink suit that the president himself had picked out the evening before. It would become arguably one of the most recognized and most symbolic pieces of clothing in American history.

Nov. 22, 1963: Love Field John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Fifty years later, those images from Dallas continue to haunt. “Whenever you see pictures of them [at Love Field], it’s like going to a Greek tragedy—we as the viewers know how it’s going to end,” says Robert Thompson. JFK left Love Field at 11:55 a.m. CST; 35 minutes later, at 12:30 p.m., he was shot. CBS News first broke into regular programming at 12:40 p.m., and at 1:38 p.m., Walter Cronkite’s legendary official announcement of Kennedy’s death was being carried to nearly every home in America. Surveys taken by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in the days following the assassination suggest that 92 percent of Americans were aware of the president’s death within two hours of the shooting, and 99.8 percent had heard the news by 6 p.m. that day.

Three previous presidents had been assassinated, but none of them in a time of mass media, and Kennedy’s death, like his life, became singular for its imagery—most of it borne to the public by television: The tremble in Walter Cronkite’s voice, the blood on Jackie Kennedy’s suit, the flicker of the Eternal Flame. Americans were not only riveted, they were emotionally invested. The NORC surveys revealed that many people wept, felt sick, suffered from headaches—in short, that they experienced symptoms of grief as if they had lost a loved one. “It was such an emotional up and down throughout those thousand days [of JFK’s administration], and it was magnified and amplified by television,” says Grimes.

The three days that followed Kennedy’s death brought the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, his murder at the hands of Jack Ruby and a funeral so steeped in grandeur and symbolism it seemed almost scripted for the small screen. “It’s still breathtaking and remarkable. It got to the point where you couldn’t turn off your TV,” says Robert Thompson. And because, in 1963, there were so many televisions and so few national stations, “[there was] penetration with TV, [and] there was the consensus culture, the mass media at its peak—nearly everybody was seeing the same thing at the same time.” JFK’s death became a galvanizing national experience that, through mass media, bound people together. The president’s funeral “provided this extraordinary ritual that everyone participated in,” Robert Thompson says. “His assassination turned him into a martyr. It was the coverage that made that assassination an experience that no one would ever forget.”

The President's funeral John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Crafting the Myth

In her pink suit and, later, her black mourning veil, Jacqueline Kennedy too was transformed by the assassination, from popular public figure to icon. She was the one who planned her husband’s funeral, patterning it after Lincoln’s, and then she set about the work of securing her husband’s place in history. A week after the assassination, she called journalist and family friend Theodore White to the Kennedy home in Hyannis and, in a long interview that White would later say was more like a soliloquy, she sowed the seeds of Camelot. “But she came back to the idea that transfixed her,” White wrote in “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” published in LIFE magazine in December 1963. “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot—and it will never be that way again.”

“She crafted that myth so carefully,” says Margaret Thompson. “In the design and choreography of the funeral and then in the interview [with White], I think she very carefully constructed his legacy.” And it’s a legacy that has endured for 50 years—even though she never spoke publicly about him again after 1964, even though countless salacious stories about his personal behavior have crept into the narrative, even though a clear-eyed assessment of his presidency would not place him in the echelon of history’s greatest leaders. He is still revered by many. “Kennedy was all about potential,” says Margaret Thompson. “And so there’s this sense of lost opportunity and what might have been.”

Feeding this sentiment is the distinct tragedy of a life ended too soon; a young widow and orphaned children; a man cut down just as he reached his zenith. 

There is also the belief held by many that Kennedy was just hitting his stride in the last months of his life. He gave two of the most significant speeches of his presidency—one addressing Civil Rights and the other outlining the first steps toward a détente with the Soviets—in June of 1963, and he signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which he considered one of the most important accomplishments of his administration, in October.

Official White House portrait of President John F. Kennedy Wikimedia Commons

Conversely, the fact that his death was followed by one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history—a period that brought the war in Vietnam, the scandal of Watergate and a series of unpopular and unsuccessful presidents—may do even more to compound the longing for a president who was in the White House too briefly to reach either great highs or great lows. “It’s much easier to get excited about someone you don’t have to live with day-to-day,” says Margaret Thompson. “And you can always say, if he had lived things would have been so much better… It’s the kind of thing that can’t be disproved.”

“I think he exists in the amber, frozen there so that you can do with him what you want to in terms of how you relate to him and the Camelot myth,” says Grimes.

For the Baby Boomers, who first loved Kennedy when they were young and idealistic and whose coming of age took place during the fallout years after his death, the image of Kennedy as hero may be especially hard to relinquish. “[Their] whole idea of that man was formed under very different circumstances that hadn’t been corrupted by history, by what we would later find out,” says Robert Thompson. “Those were heady days. And under those circumstances, those are people who—you often don’t completely let go of how it was you experienced them the first time around.”

Consequently, the fact that the Baby Boomers, the largest generation in U.S. history, have dominated the American cultural, political and social scenes for the past 40-plus years may explain why Kennedy remains so potent, even today. Grimes says the Boomers have passed the Camelot mythology onto subsequent generations “like an heirloom.”

“I think John F. Kennedy represents something we wished we cared about,” she says. “Isn’t that what Camelot was? It was that notion of a special time and place where good things happen for everybody in the kingdom.

“He is iconic of an era of idealism. I think that’s the last time when idealism was ‘fashionable’ and I think that has a great romantic appeal… [It was a] call to conscience in terms of public service and humanity. Those phrases like, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’—that’s an appeal to our better selves. And nobody has the guts to do that anymore.”

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