As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.
Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.
The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.
But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.
Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.
And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.
Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.
Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.
In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.
Two presidents. One Democrat, one Republican. Both turn ninety this year. Neither man ever directly ran against the other. But how do Jimmy “Peanut farmer” Carter or George “Read my lips” Bush square up in a direct face off?
Carter: The younger of the two, James Earle (“Jimmy”) Carter was the 39th president between 1977 and 1981. He has been a former president for thirty three years, longer than any one else in US history.
Bush: George Herbert Walker Bush was the 41st president from 1989 until 1993. Only the second man to be both president and father to a US president (the other was John Adams) he was always referred to as simply “George Bush” before 2000 but is now usually referred to as George HW Bush to distinguish him from his son George W Bush (43, 2001-2009).
Carter: Famously a Georgia peanut farmer, Carter also has a first class degree in nuclear physics and served in the navy in World War II.
Bush: Scion of a super rich Texas oil family, Bush was the youngest ever US pilot in World War II. His father was a Republican senator.
RISE TO POWER
Carter: Carter served as a Senator and as Governor of Georgia.
Bush: Bush took a different route becoming a congressman and twice standing unsuccessfully for the Senate in the Sixties, only really coming to the fore as Ambassador to the UN and head of the CIA under Nixon and Ford. He was sacked by the new president, Carter in 1976 but sought the presidency himself in 1980. He was beaten for the nomination by Ronald Reagan who picked him as his running mate. Bush served two terms as Vice President between 1981 and 1989.
Carter: Carter triumphed over California Governor Jerry Brown and his eventual running mate Walter Mondale.
Bush: As Veep, Bush was always the favourite for the 1988 Republican nomination beating eccentric evangelist Pat Robertson (Rupert Murdoch’s preferred candidate) and Senator Bob Dole who came to be seen as a sore loser after he angrily called on Bush to “quit lying about my record”.
Carter: In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly beat President Gerald Ford. Weakened by Watergate, recession, the Nixon pardon and a gaffe in which he denied Eastern Europe was dominated by the USSR in the TV debate, Ford was only the third president to be beaten in a November election in the 20th century (after President William Taft lost to challenger Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and incumbent Herbert Hoover who lost to FDR in 1932).
Bush: Initially perceived as a “wimp” from a privileged background, Bush trailed his opponent Governor Michael Dukakis during the summer of 1988. Fighting a dirty campaign and lambasting Dukakis as a “tax and spend liberal,” Bush reversed the situation, helped by Dukakis’s refusal to respond to Bush’s attacks, Dukakis’s unpopular opposition to the death penalty, Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and Dukakis’s short physical stature. Bush ultimately won a forty state landslide and ultimately beat “Duke” by around an 8% margin in the share of the vote.
Carter: Walter Mondale served as Carter’s Vice President. He performed less well as Reagan’s presidential opponent in 1984 winning only one out of the fifty states contested (Minnesota).
Bush: Bush’s choice Dan Quayle was a gaffe-prone disaster who quickly became a national joke. Quayle was exposed as a Vietnam draft dodger (using his family connections to secure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard), misspelled the word “potatoes” in public, botched a tribute to the Holocaust (claiming it was a sad chapter “in our nation’s history”) and attacked TV sitcom Murphy Brown after the main character had a child out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Bush retained him as running mate even in 1992.
Carter: Although he was never hugely popular, carter achieved a major breakthrough in the quest for Middle East peace with the signing of the Camp David Agreement in 1978. The SALT 2 Treaty was also a huge success in Détente though it was never ratified by the US Senate.
Bush: Bush achieved successes in the Middle East too but his biggest success was the 1991 “Desert Storm” victory over Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Bush became the most popular president in thirty years. Some on the Right later regretted not extending the war into Iraq itself as Bush’s son would later do with disastrous consequences.
DECLINE AND FALL
Carter: Never popular, Carter failed to get to grips with the economy, eventually attempted a disastrous move to the Right and a Reagan-like defence build up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His presidency was ultimately poisoned by the Iranian hostage crisis after 1979. The hostages were released on the day Carter left office in January 1981.
Bush: Bush witnessed a spectacular collapse in popularity between 1991 and 1992, due to the recession, his apparent preoccupation with foreign affairs and his introduction of the second biggest tax increase in US history after his “no new taxes” pledge in 1988. In reality, with Reagan having left him a spiralling national debt, Bush was foolish to have ever made the pledge in the first place.
Carter: In 1980, the president faced a serious internal challenge from senior Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy (brother of the assassinated Jack and Bobby). Memories of Kennedy’s role in the 1969 Chappaquiddick Incident wrecked his chances though.
Bush: in 1992, Bush was distracted by a major primary challenge from ex-Nixon speechwriter Senator Pat Buchanan, a pugnacious right winger.
Carter: Carter was beaten soundly by Republican Ronald Reagan in November 1980. In the run-up to the election, the contest appeared much closer than it ultimately proved.
Bush: Bush faced an independent challenge from Texan billionaire H. Ross Perot, but it was ultimately Democrat Governor Bill Clinton who beat Bush, overcoming rumours of infidelity and draft dodging to become one of the most accomplished campaigners in US history.
Carter: Although not a hugely successful president, Carter has been a hugely successful ex-president winning the Nobel Peace Prize, writing an acclaimed novel and appearing in Ben Affleck’s film Argo.
Bush: Bush‘s legacy has perhaps been tarnished by the poor record of his son as president.
The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.
But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.
Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.
Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.
President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).
History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.
The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president, Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.
Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.
President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.
Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.
Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.
Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.
President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.
A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves behind a pregnant wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.
At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election.
Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.
That very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is re-elected to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.
Father Joseph P. Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.
George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.
Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.
Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice, Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.
McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.
Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive for a period between January 1973 and August 1974.
The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.
Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.
President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.
President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.
Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.
The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released. As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.
Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Gerald Ford for the White House.
Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.
The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.
Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this was the case between 1968 and 1996).
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.
President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting that after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect (he was third in line after both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House) and the “I’m in charge” gaffe reassures no one on an alarming day. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.
This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).
Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.
David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.
Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.
Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.
Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis.
Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:
Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.
William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.
Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when the 35th president visited his high school when Clinton was 16.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.
John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies, aged 76. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.
Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film, Forrest Gump.
Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.
Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.
The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age. Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination.
Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.
The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.
John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister-in-law. He is 39.
Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (although does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days referred to in the title are October 14th-28th 1962).
Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.
The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.
The film Bobby, directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released. Estevez is the son of Martin Sheen who played JFK in 1983.
Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.
Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the third longest continuously serving Senator in US history.
Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).
TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series, The Kennedys, thirty years before.
Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.