One hundred years on from his birth, John F Kennedy should belong to history but his legacy endures says Lori Anderson
IN a sombre black scalloped neck jacket and French navy top, face illuminated by the nacreous glow of a single strand of classic white pearls, Caroline Kennedy appeared as if in mourning for the father she barely knew.
As a little girl she had used his desk in the Oval Office as an imaginary fort and was just six years old when she, her mother, her younger brother and the entire nation, lost him in Dallas to an assassin’s bullets. Yet this week Caroline Kennedy spoke in a short film to mark Monday’s anniversary when her father, John F. Kennedy would have been 100 years old. “I miss him every day of my life, but growing up without him was easier thanks to all of the people who kept him in their hearts.” She continued: “He is a historic figure. One hundred years is a really long time but I think his legacy and values are timeless and they live on.”
A century is a long time and yet it’s almost possible to imagine JFK as an ageing former president, the first centenarian, for both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are now into their nineties and may soon claim this spot. Instead he is forever young, a charming, good-looking, eloquent man filled with an infinite promise. I hope it won’t offend Barack Obama, who was speaking in Edinburgh last night, and might happen to pick up The Scotsman this morning, to argue that, among presidents, Kennedy was the greatest political speaker of the twentieth century. His inaugural address is rightly celebrated for famously stating: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for this country.” Many today point to his words celebrating America as a nation of immigrants: “This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principles that all men are created equal and the rights of every man are diminished once the rights of one man are threatened.”
Today Kennedy is viewed as the antithesis of the current occupant of the White House, the white knight to Trump’s dark dragon and yet there are similarities for those who wish to look. Both are sons of millionaires blessed by a sense of righteous destiny, both believed fame and power entitled them to the sexual favours of women, (the extent of Kennedy’s seductions in the White House remains quite shocking) both were carried to the White House because of their success on television and both were either complimented (Kennedy) or condemned (Trump) over their exceptional head of hair. Kennedy single handedly stopped the modern American male from wearing hats, for despite the fact ‘Hatless Jack’, as he became known, was presented with one at almost every campaign stop, he would refuse to put them on and so made the style look dated. In office Kennedy was the first to be accused of rampant nepotism when he appointed his brother Bobby to be Attorney General. A final comparison is that both wished to reach for the stars as Kennedy pointed NASA at the moon while Trump now wants to land a man on Mars.
Kennedy’s achievements during his 1000 days in office were actually quite slim, that said his greatest was to save the world from nuclear destruction. For had the young President not learned a bitter lesson from the Bay of Pigs debacle - never trust the certainty of the Pentagon or the C.I.A - he would not have had the personal resolve to trust his own instincts during the Cuban missile crisis. A lasting legacy, at least till now, was Kennedy’s decision to embrace free trade and pass the Trade Expansion Act, which Trump now wishes to roll back with his cry of ‘American First’. While Kennedy is now so often viewed through the prism of civil rights, the fact is he was late in recognising its political importance and achieved more in death, than he could in life. For his successor Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan more than au fait with the n-word, used the shockwaves around Kennedy’s assassination, along with his own bullying mastery of the Senate to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and so achieve more for people of colour in America than any man since Lincoln, according to his biographer Robert A. Caro. However Johnston’s reputation was then swept away by a tidal wave of blood when he escalated the war in Vietnam.
Kennedy did not live to disappoint us, as all politicians do, so he remains firmly on a pedestal. It’s touching to watch Caroline in the short film talk of memories of yachting trips with her father when he pointed out the imaginary sharks that feast on little girl’s socks. A daughter’s love for her father is a constant, that does not diminish even down through five decades. What is more fanciful and less appealing is to hear her son insist that his grandfather would not only have been energised by the predicament of climate change but that it is a problem “he could have solved”.
Caroline Kennedy is right to say that her father now belongs to history and while we can still be inspired by his words, it’s wrong to cast him as a mythical super-politician. Camelot did not exist but JFK, for all his faults and failings and stirring words, surely did and America, and the world, is a better place for him.