It is a question that people of a certain generation are all too familiar with, and those who are still around today will be able to answer it instantly.
Fifty years ago this November the 35th president of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
There are a million theories, counter theories and conspiracies about why he was killed, and who did it. However, there is no doubt that for a man who was in the Oval Office for just one thousand and thirty six days, JFK made an incredible and indelible mark on the history of his own country and helped to shape the future of the world for many years after he had left it. Indeed, even today, Kennedy is influencing the thinking of modern social democratic politicians from across the globe.
JFK, a war hero from a privileged background, was elected to the White House in 1960, defeating his Republican opponent Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins.
Many put his slender victory down to the presidential television debate, where Kennedy looked young, modern, fresh and comfortable against the comparatively dull Nixon. Others suggested that vote rigging and Mafia influence in key states had given JFK and his glamorous wife Jackie the keys to the Oval Office.
What is certain is that at 41 years of age Kennedy was the youngest President to be elected in the States – and he was probably the first politician to adopt a media savvy approach to his campaigning, policy making and time in office. The phrase ‘spin doctor’ did not exist in the sixties, but JFK has a coterie of colleagues who did for him what Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson did for Tony Blair over thirty years later.
He was a President who recognised and used the new medium of television effectively. He was a master of the ‘sound bite’, with the words “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?” immortalising him as early as his inauguration.
Ably aided and abetted by his wife, he created a modern and aspirational culture for his own country and famously established his new White House as ‘Camelot’.
For the young and idealistic, JFK and the Kennedys offered hope, confidence and a belief that things really could change for the better. On issues such as race, international relations and public policy his approach was bold, outward looking and ‘new’ Democrat.
He believed in the American dream, that everyone should have a shot at being the best that they could be. But he also believed that success should be rewarded, and he fought a long and ultimately winning campaign to introduce tax reductions for American entrepreneurs and workers, against the wishes of many in his own party.
What previously, had often been seen as the ‘invisible’ position of ‘First Lady’ was transformed into an important and professionally respected role within the Kennedy White House. Jackie was an articulate, twentieth century woman who had things to say. JFK let her say them. She was a personality in her own right and a plus in any political campaign. Again TV and the wider media were encouraged to utilise Jackie whenever appropriate.
Indeed, on the international stage too, Jackie became as iconic as Princess Diana did many years later. On one foreign visit the President joked “It has been nice to accompany Mrs Kennedy on our latest international tour” as the first lady was mobbed by thousands of well wishers and snapped from every conceivable angle by the paparazzi.
Beyond the campaigning and image making though, JFK alongside his younger brother Bobby, who he appointed as Attorney General, faced challenges and crisis that no President had faced before or since, no more so than in the arena of the ‘cold war’.
In his early days in office, Kennedy was persuaded to support a covert invasion of Cuba known as ‘the Bay of Pigs’. The operation went disastrously wrong, leading to a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet President Khrushchev and his Cuban comrade President Castro.
It was rumoured that it almost led to a military coup in the States, and it most certainly destabilised and undermined JFK’s Presidency. The debacle left him looking weak on the international stage and it was inevitable that this weakness would be tested by the Soviet Union at some time.
“The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.”
That time came in October 1962 when US intelligence discovered that the Russians were placing nuclear warheads in Cuba.
Where Khrushchev was anticipating weakness, JFK showed steel. For thirty long days the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuban waters, preventing Soviet ships from delivering their weapons. He demanded that the Russian ships return to Eastern Europe – or war would be declared.
In the tensest period of the long cold war years, Khrushchev blinked first, catastrophe was avoided and JFK had restored his credibility on the world stage.
Domestically JFK boasted economic growth, near full employment and started the long process of introducing civil rights, a job that was finally finished by the man who so unexpectedly succeeded him Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy’s Presidency pioneered innovative work in the field of mental health, and he enthusiastically supported America’s space programme.
Nonetheless, he was not universally popular in the States, with his ‘modern family’ approach and support of the civil rights movement particularly disapproved of in the South.
‘Camelot’ also had a dark side. The President’s numerous affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe, worried his staff and were known to the US intelligence services. His links with Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack and his Mafia connections were another reason for concern. He was also in poor health for a man of his age, old war injuries and a chronic bad back often disabling him for days as he struggled to maintain a gruelling schedule.
The Vietnam War was in its early stages. His instinct told him that it was a conflict the US could not win. However, he placed political pragmatism ahead of the lives of thousands of American troops fearing withdrawal would cost him votes.
It was against this background that he embarked upon a tour of the southern states – a tour that cost him his life.
We will never know if JFK would have achieved a second term of office, or indeed what he would have done beyond his Presidency. What we do know is that his memory still lives on, his politics, both in terms of style and substance, remain, and many of his twentieth century initiatives have made the twenty first century world a much better place.
JFK’S BRIGHT SIDE
- The creation of ‘Camelot’ gave not only the citizens of his own nation hope, but inspired a generation from across the world.
- His speech in Berlin that played a major part in stopping the spread of Soviet Communism into Western Europe – “Ich bin Ein Berliner”
- He was the first President of the twentieth century to genuinely challenge the abhorrent racism that existed in some southern states of the US, and his support of the civil rights movement.
- The Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world teetered on the edge of nuclear disaster. JFK held his nerve and restored his reputation on the international stage.
- After eight years of negotiation, he persuaded the USSR, the UK and the USA to sign a Nuclear Weapon Test Ban Treaty.
- He was a Democrat who recognised that tax breaks for successful entrepreneurs and businesses helped to grow the economy.
“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
JFK’S DARK SIDE
- His mishandling of ‘The Bay of Pigs’ almost lost him his Presidency and could have led to a military takeover in the States.
- His close association to Mafia bosses and those close to them pre his election always meant that he was vulnerable to the very worst kind of ‘lobbying’.
- His extra marital affairs.
- His decision to persevere with the Vietnam War for reasons of political expediency. He would almost certainly have pulled the troops out had he won a second term as President.