JFK’s abiding legacy

  • Themes: America, American Democracy, Geopolitics, History

Through his visionary leadership, inspired rhetoric, and willingness to compromise, John F. Kennedy summoned the narrative of American hope, his most powerful and enduring legacy.

Senator John F. Kennedy at Hyannis Port.
Senator John F. Kennedy at Hyannis Port. Credit: Phillip Harrington / Alamy Stock Photo

Six decades have passed since the assassination of America’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy, as his motorcade crept slowly along Elm Street, beneath the Texas Schoolbook Depository, in Dallas, on a sunny fall day in November 1963. Yet he remains an outsized persona, not only in the United States but abroad, a man known universally by his initials, more remembered than all but a small number of twentieth-century world leaders.

Born in 1917, during one world war, and at the dawn of the so-called American Century, he came of age in a second, then rose all the way to the presidency, only to be cut down at forty-six, while leading a United States that stood at the apex of its power. He was a man of privilege and affluence who endured chronic ill health and pain as well as colossal personal tragedy, and whose storybook life captivated millions of people – not merely in the United States but overseas, not merely in death but in life.

Known for his handsome looks, cool and elegant demeanour, and continuous womanising, Kennedy was gifted and flawed, as a politician and as a person, and his thousand days in the White House witnessed mistakes as well as successes. But through his captivating leadership and inspirational rhetoric he elevated Americans’ belief in the capacity of politics to solve big problems and speak to society’s highest aspirations, while in foreign affairs he showed it was possible to move from sharp hostility toward the Soviet Union to coexistence. The American public responded. By the middle of 1963, close to 60 per cent of Americans claimed that they had voted for Kennedy in 1960, although only 49.7 per cent had in fact done so. After his death, his landslide grew to 65 per cent. Kennedy’s average approval rating of 70 per cent while in office puts him at the top among post-Second World War US presidents, and later generations would rate his performance higher still.

What explains the enduring hold of John F. Kennedy’s legacy, his lasting appeal? Does it have something to do with his youthful and dignified bearing, his handsome looks? Yes, in part. What about the glamour of his White House, his beautiful family? That too matters, as does his inspirational speechmaking. And no doubt he retains a hold on Americans partly because of the timing and nature of his death, which was captured on film and plays on an endless loop in our minds. He is forever in his mid-forties, seemingly in the prime of life.

All those things matter. But as I research and write a two-volume study of the man and his times, I’m increasingly convinced that, more than anything, it was Kennedy’s enduring faith in his nation and its brand of democratic politics that explains most fully his abiding legacy.

From a young age, John F. Kennedy was fascinated by the problems of democratic leadership in politics. The interest was there in his undergraduate papers at Harvard as well as in his senior thesis, which was published as a book, Why England Slept, just a few weeks after his graduation in 1940, when he was twenty-three. The animating question of the study was why Britain was so poorly prepared when war broke out in 1939. To read the book is to see that its young author is fascinated by the challenges of leadership, and the dilemmas that confront officials who seek to do what is required of them while not alienating their temperamental constituents. It’s a theme Kennedy would return to in a later book, Profiles in Courage, and a conundrum he would confront to the end of his days.

Let us linger a bit on Profiles in Courage, which appeared in 1956 and featured profiles of eight US senators who showed notable courage and risked their careers in taking political stances unpopular with their constituents, their parties, and in some cases their regions. Here, the challenges of democratic politics are front and centre. The introductory chapter is notable, not least for its current resonance. Its title is ‘Courage and Politics’, but, more than anything, the chapter argues for the vital importance in a democracy of political compromise, of having ‘the sense of things possible’. To condemn all compromise as immoral is shortsighted, Kennedy insists, for decisions of public policy often involve difficult choices, often means choosing from a menu of lousy options:

The fanatics and extremists and even those conscientiously devoted to hard and fast principles are always disappointed at the failure of their government to rush to implement all of their principles and to denounce those of their opponents. [But] some of my colleagues who are criticized today for lack of forthright principles—or who are looked upon with scornful eyes as compromising ‘politicians’—are simply engaged in the art of conciliating, balancing, and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion, an art essential to keeping our nation united and our Government to function. Their consciences may direct them from time to time to make a more rigid stand for principle—but their intellects tell them that a fair or poor bill is better than no bill at all, and that only through the give-and-take of compromise will any bill receive the successive approval of the Senate, the House, the President and the nation.

The concluding chapter returns to these broader themes. It matters to us today for what it says about Kennedy’s view of political leadership, and for serving as a kind of eternal antidote to the cynicism about politics and politicians that periodically courses through American political discourse. Here, Kennedy extols both compromise and courage (the courage he most favours is that of moderates who resist extremists). At the same time, he stresses that his book is not intended to laud independence for the sake of independence, or to suggest that there is on every issue a right side and a wrong side. ‘On the contrary,’ he writes, ‘I share the feelings expressed by Prime Minister Melbourne, who, when irritated by the criticism of the then youthful historian T.B. Macaulay, remarked that he would like to be as sure of anything as Macaulay seemed to be of everything.’

He then quotes Abraham Lincoln: ‘There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of Government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.’

Here Kennedy may have been influenced by a conversation he had around the time of the publication of Profiles with his longtime British friend David Ormsby-Gore. From his reading of American history, Kennedy told the Englishman, he had drawn the lessons that there were usually two sides to every serious political problem. The radicals of the right and the left, in their constant demand for simple solutions, didn’t grasp this fundamental point. ‘Now this didn’t prevent him being capable of taking decisions,’ Ormsby-Gore later said of the conversation, ‘but it did always prevent him saying, “I know that I have got nothing but right on my side and the other side is entirely wrong” and he never would adopt that attitude. He said that one of the sad things in life, particularly if you were a politician, was that you discovered that the other side really had a very good case. He was most unpartisan in that way.’

In divisive times, such as the one the United States is living through today, this emphasis on the need for compromise is often derided, mistakenly, as naïve. On the contrary, the naïve view is the one that dismisses the need for bargaining with opponents, the need for compromise based on mutual concessions. Neither then nor later was Kennedy above bare-knuckle politics or partisan sparring, but he understood that honest bargaining was necessary to a well-functioning democracy, and that civility in the public realm prevented dehumanisation and helped Americans to see political opponents as adversaries, not enemies. He understood that dignity –  acting in a dignified manner and treating others appropriate to their dignity – is a core value of democracy.

Closely associated with Kennedy’s interest in the demands of democratic leadership was his frequent exhortation to Americans to commit themselves to a life of public service. As he put it in his 1961 Inaugural Address: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’ This was no new idea in his mind; it had been drilled into him at Choate, his prep school alma mater. Even before that, his parents had implemented in their nine children the importance of thinking beyond oneself, of doing something for the greater good. When, in 1946, Kennedy returned to Choate to give a lecture, he urged the students to be engaged citizens and to serve their country in some way. On the stump that year, in his maiden election campaign, he fleshed out the argument, sounding notes that seem especially resonant in our own time. Beware lazy cynicism about politics and politicians, the skinny young candidate implored audiences, for the survival of democracy depended on having an informed and engaged citizenry, committed to reasoned discourse and accepting of good-faith bargaining between the parties. In that campaign and in his later ones, including in his run for the White House, Kennedy employed the language of empathy, emphasising Americans’ common goals and common fate as a people, and he embodied a kind of patriotism that doesn’t transcend partisanship, but enriches partisan struggle, making it always an invitation to others to join you.

It’s a powerful political philosophy, one that has lost none of its salience in the ensuing years. And though it cannot be said that Kennedy ranks among America’s great presidents, alongside Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – he didn’t live long enough, didn’t accomplish enough – one feels he had the capacity for greatness. Through his visionary leadership and inspired rhetoric, he summoned the narrative of American hope, as he challenged people to believe in a better society at home while embracing the nation’s leadership position abroad. He approached his job as president with earnest resoluteness – a fundamental test of political leadership. He had the discipline and maturity to discern matters that transcended self-interest, and he was able and willing to set aside immature ego and emotionalism and to act with prudence and self-restraint. Beneath all the style and glamour, Kennedy was basically a serious man on a serious mission.

He was at once a realist and an idealist. Like all philosophic liberals – whether on the right side of the political spectrum or the left – he understood that people have selfish interests, but he believed in democracy and robust conversation because he had faith in the capacity of people to pursue their own lives, to respect and be mindful of people unlike themselves, to keep society progressing. In other words, Kennedy embodied what my colleague James Kloppenberg in his book Toward Democracy refers to as an ‘ethic of reciprocity’ – a mutual respect, a recognition and tolerance for one another, even if we do not all share the same moral commitments. Politically, Kloppenberg writes, it means the willingness to accept defeat, to allow your worst enemies to govern if they win an election.

Kennedy reminds us that there was an age, not so long ago, when it was possible to believe that politics could speak to society’s moral yearnings and be harnessed to its highest aspirations, when it was possible to think in terms of the social whole, of the public good, of the need to emphasise what Americans had in common over what set them apart.

Whether that message can work in today’s world is one of the crucial questions of our time. No doubt the United States is different today than it was sixty years ago. Voters are more cynical, more suspicious about politics, about institutions, more likely to question one another’s motives. And the media environment is different too – the nation now has a much less deferential press corps, and an incredible expansion of opinion-makers and influencers in which everyone weighs in with little accounting of their expertise or their credibility.

Imagine if one of the legendary Kennedy press conferences were held today. The instant he was off the air, zealous partisans would be debating and disputing every word and undoing what he attempted to convey directly to the public. Social media would be afire with haters and sceptics and trolls.

We don’t know how JFK would have navigated any of that. He surely would have felt frustrated and irritated by it. But he would have been as likely as anyone to cut through it, to appeal to a fundamental sense of decency and fairness that didn’t persuade everyone but did carry along a great many people, both at the time and since. As much as anyone, Kennedy could have persuaded the mass of his compatriots that, through engagement and good will, we can make real and lasting connections across differences, that society is not a zero-sum war, but a conversation and a negotiation. He could have convinced them that, in the house of democracy, there can be no enemies, and that when politicians treat each other as enemies, honest bargaining becomes impossible, and debate within the halls of power in Washington becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless.

Finally, a Kennedy alive today would insist upon another essential ingredient of democratic governance: rational, fact-based discourse. One can have one’s own view about why the facts are the way they are, but all must agree on the facts if there’s going to be a sensible conversation about problems and how to solve them. Consider here Kennedy’s remarks in a speech planned for the Dallas Trade Mart on 22 November 1963, a destination he never reached:

In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason, or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality, and the plausible with the possible, will gain popular ascendancy, and with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem. We cannot expect… that everyone will talk sense to the American people, but we can hope that fewer people will listen to this nonsense.


Fredrik Logevall