John F. Kennedy remains a shining knight of American political history. He was the youngest person to ascend to the presidency and the youngest president to die in office. He and his wife Jacqueline were icons of style, presiding over a glittering era that became known as Camelot.
Kennedy’s presidency was full of political crises, both in the international sphere (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall) and domestically (incidents arising from the Civil Rights Movement). Yet Kennedy seemed to manage every crisis with flair and confidence, and he remains among the most popular of all the American presidents.
John (or Jack) Kennedy, born in 1917, was the second son of millionaire businessman Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (whose father had been mayor of Boston). After his elder brother (Joseph Kennedy, Jr.) was killed in action in World War II, it was expected that Jack Kennedy would enter politics to satisfy his father’s ambitions.
Using his family connections, his war hero status (when the small boat he commanded in the Pacific theater was sunk, Jack rescued a crewmate), and his intelligence (while convalescing after a back operation, he wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book), Kennedy launched his political career in 1947 as a Congressional Representative from Massachusetts. He followed that up by running for the Senate, where he served from 1953 until 1960.
When Jack Kennedy ran as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency against Republican Richard Nixon (Vice President in the outgoing Eisenhower administration) in 1960, he represented a fresh face and a new generation. He was young (just 43), Catholic, and stylish, with a glamorous wife (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy) and a young daughter (Caroline). His Catholicism was a concern for voters, but Kennedy was able to defuse the concern and won the election by an ultra-slim margin.
Jack Kennedy’s presidency was a tumultuous ride. Nuclear war seemed to be a distinct possibility during the Cuban Missile Crisis (when Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered deployed in Cuba), relations between the Soviet Bloc and the Western powers deteriorated also in Berlin, and the Civil Rights Movement resulted in rising tensions in the Southern states as Martin Luther King’s nonviolent campaigns against segregation spread from city to city.
Yet it was also an era of hope for America, as the Second World War receded and the post-war boom expanded. Kennedy charmed Americans with his wit and sophistication and inspired them with his eloquence (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”). White House events became prime social occasions, as the elite from the entertainment world flocked to dine and dance with Jack and Jacqueline. The moment became known as Camelot, a reference to the popular musical about the Arthurian legend.
Camelot came to a sudden and tragic end in Dallas on November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding in a motorcade with his wife. America and the world were thrust into shock and into mourning.
John F. Kennedy is remembered as the leader of America at a critical moment of challenge and promise, a leader who carried the hopes and dreams of Americans – and did it with effortless grace. His time in office was cut short, yet it was long enough for Americans – and many others around the world – to fall in love with the young, dynamic president.
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