John F. Kennedy not only should have been alive during my lifetime, but he should have had the opportunity to be the first sitting president in my lifetime. Instead, the gunshots from his assassination were still echoing throughout the world on the day of my birth in 1966.
Kennedy had a lot in common with two other twentieth century presidents, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. The Roosevelts came from a wealthy northeastern family and saw public service as an obligation, as did Kennedy. Like the Roosevelts, Kennedy also went against the dogma of his class, including his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.
But if you had to compare Kennedy to either of the Roosevelts, it would have to be Franklin. Theodore worked most of his life, even though he did not really need to. He was a rancher, legislator, civil servant, and soldier before becoming vice president. Franklin was more the idle rich youth shepherded early on by his mother before coming into his own during his thirties. Likewise, Jack Kennedy was an aimless student at Harvard, having to endure comparisons to his brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., whom Joe Kennedy originally wanted to become president. In this respect, Jack (and brother Joe) had a lot in common with another Ivy League son of a man with dynastic ambitions, George H. W. Bush, whose father Prescott also had dynastic ambitions.
When Joe went off to war, Jack emerged from his shadow and majored in government at Harvard, turning a thesis into a best-selling book, Why England Slept. It would be the beginning of a life-long obsession with foreign policy. He followed his brother Joe into the service, joining the Navy at the start of America’s involvement in World War II. It was here Kennedy’s sexual compulsions would get him into trouble. While working for Naval Intelligence, he began an affair with a reporter named Inga Arvad. Unfortunately, the FBI suspected Arvad of being a Nazi spy. Kennedy transferred to another post, then to the Great Lakes, and finally became a PT boat commander in the South Pacific. During his time in the South Pacific, Kennedy endured a harrowing two days at sea after his boat, the PT 109, was destroyed by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy was decorated for his bravery, though the loss of two of his crew would forever haunt him.
Kennedy moved to Boston after the war, where he ran for Congress in 1946. Interestingly enough, this was also the year Richard Nixon won his first election to the House. Kennedy’s congressional election was largely a project for Joe Kennedy, Sr. It was also the point where Jack Kennedy decided he wanted to win the White House. Jack took to the plan with gusto. He had more reasons than just personal ambition and his father’s plans that drove him, however. During his Navy years, he suffered from severe back problems and poor health. Shortly after he began his career in Washington, he was also diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a progressive degeneration of the adrenal glands. Kennedy knew he would die young. So he invested his energy into his career. He often needed crutches to get around, but he gave the impression of being a vital, active young man.
Kennedy was not a spectacular senator or congressman, serving as he did in Republican-dominated congresses. Where he rose to national prominence came in 1956, when he campaigned actively to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. He lost to Estes Kefauver, but it was the beginning of the 1960 presidential campaign. And Kennedy knew he would face Vice President Richard Nixon.
Oddly enough, Nixon and Kennedy had a good working relationship when they served together in Congress. They had done a public debate on a major bill in the early 1950’s, spending the train ride back to Washington hammering out some committee business to be handled on their return. Once, when Kennedy was hospitalized for back surgery, the junior senator from Massachusetts found a fruit basket waiting for him when he returned to the office. The card read, “Welcome back! Dick Nixon.”
The 1960 campaign would permanently split the two men. Nixon was already noted for being a sore loser with a self-destructive streak. Kennedy would lose his temper just as badly, but was a skilled enough politician to keep it private, always showing the charm and the energy when he appeared in public.
Kennedy started his administration at a disadvantage. Winning the White House on a plurality, he had no real mandate from voters. He also faced a Republican Congress. From Eisenhower, he inherited a communist Cuba, as well as a jobless recovery. He didn’t help matters by authorizing the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Misinterpreting a briefing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he and Bobby, his Attorney General, decided the plan to seize Cuba and oust Castro would work. When it did not, Kennedy was devastated and shook up his group of foreign policy advisers. Unfortunately, he also emboldened Nikita Krushchev, leader of the Soviet Union. Krushchev used the debacle to press East Germany for a peace treaty that would effectively oust the Allies from West Berlin. He also decided that, since the US had missiles in Turkey aimed directly across the Black Sea at the USSR (“directly at my dacha!” the Soviet leader frequently shouted to guests), why not stick a few in Cuba? JFK wasn’t having it and blockaded Cuba. This became the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1961. Kennedy gave Krushchev one thing he wanted – quietly removing the missiles in Turkey – but only if the Soviets publicly removed the missiles from Cuba and allowed West Berlin to remain part of allied West Germany. Krushchev “blinked,” said Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it.
This emboldened Kennedy. He pushed for anti-poverty measures, many of which his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would get, leaned on Congress to pass civil rights legislation, and set a goal to put a man on the moon by 1970. One issue that would not go away was Vietnam. In an effort to stave off the threat of communist expansion, the US supported South Vietnam’s brutal and repressive regime, composed largely of French-educated Catholics. When the regime violently attacked Buddhists, Kennedy decided to withdraw support from the regime and promised support to a new regime after a military coup. He was not happy about it, and by then, Kennedy had an inkling that the US needed to write off Vietnam. Unlike Laos, where US involvement ended with a compromise between Kennedy and Krushchev, he saw only a repeat of the French debacle of the 1950’s.
So how did Kennedy turn his administration around despite an intransigent Congress and persistent high unemployment? (6.8%, which would be considered wonderful today.) Kennedy took his case directly to the people. Eisenhower held televised press conferences, but Kennedy took the unprecedented step of doing them live. He carefully managed how they were presented, but these days, we take it for granted that a president is going to speak live to the nation. He crafted his own image, making sure people saw the youthful playboy, not the Addison’s-riddled man with a deteriorating back. He also recruited rivals. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was a Republican business executive while dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination Adlai Stevenson served as UN ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Once, after a particularly brutal battle with Congress, Kennedy reached out to Barry Goldwater, the most likely GOP opponent in 1964 and then a leader in the Senate. Over lunch, Kennedy said, “So, you think you really want this f***ing job?” FDR had had similar conversations with Wendell Wilkie after the 1940 election, telling his new adviser, “Someday, you may have to sit in this office” when explaining why and how he made decisions.
What would Kennedy have achieved if he had not been cut down that November day in Dallas? Kennedy had started to gain traction with the American people when he decided to run again, and he had finally made in-roads with Congressional Republican leaders. Although many of his civil rights initiatives passed largely from support stemming from his death, it’s very likely these acts would have passed, though with more modest support. It’s also likely America’s involvement in Vietnam would have ended much sooner, and without the smaller country enduring war with China as happened in the 1970’s. Kennedy, while anti-communist, was willing to talk with communists, something that drove Krushchev to madness. But the Kennedy we elected in 1960 would not have been the Kennedy welcoming his successor to office in 1969. His back was deteriorating so rapidly that, by the midterm of his second administration, he would have been wheelchair-bound. Also, eventually, the effects of his Addison’s disease and the use of drugs to counteract his poor health would have taken their toll.
We will never know for sure, however. When those shots rang out in Dallas in 1963, it began one of the greatest periods of unrest in recent history.