In November, I did a quick stop-over in the US on my way back to Amsterdam from Argentina. Though I stayed less than a day in North America, the timing of my visit made it a fascinating one. When I landed in Atlanta, I realized that it was on the day that marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
As I spent much of the 12-hour layover in airline lounges, or simply wandering through the airport, I read and watched numerous stories about this man, his presidency, and his untimely death. It all caused me to reflect on why Kennedy seemed such an important figure in the history of the 20th century, though he spent less than three years in power.
While I am neither a historian nor an expert on the 1960s, my reading and recollection have led to a some theories about why the memory of JFK has such a significant impact on the American psyche.
I believe that one reason for the fascination with Kennedy is that his presidency was enormously symbolic at a crucial moment in history. He came to power in an era when his country was longing to move beyond the memory of the World War and into a new world order. He seemed to embody an emerging nation’s aspirations: he was charismatic, youthful and energetic, and above all audacious.
It was an eventful time on the world stage, filled with the dramatic tension of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In a singular act of boldness, Kennedy went to the brink of nuclear war to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba in 1962.
There was undoubtedly an element of glamour to the Kennedy years. It was early in the age of television, the first time Americans could see daily moving images of a president and his family. Young men wanted to be like Jack Kennedy, and women wanted to dress like his beautiful and stylish wife. To the average observer, the Kennedy White House seemed to have an almost royal aspect. In fact, it was nicknamed “Camelot”, the castle of the legendary English King Arthur, which was idealized in a 1960 musical of the same name.
Of course, the passage of time has revealed a darker side of Kennedy and his presidency that the world did not know about then. Behind closed doors, he battled poor health and daily pain that would probably have been crippling to a man of lesser grit and determination. We now have reports of his daily consumption of an elaborate daily mix of pills and injections.
One extraordinary aspect of JFK, according to historical accounts from people close to him, was his that he never seemed bothered by pain or failing health. In both private and public life, he apparently had a rare ability to see beyond his own or his country’s limitations, and to focus intently on the possibilities.
Without a doubt, part of the fascination with Kennedy has to do with his tragic end. He remains a hero struck down in his prime, and in the middle of his unfolding story. JFK’s assassination perpetuated his myth and idealized the short time that was his presidency. He remains forever young and vibrant, and idolized in American minds.
However, I feel that there is a less apparent underlying reason behind JFK’s now mythic status, and it has to do with personal storytelling. As is the case with the best leaders in any field, and more than any political figure of his era, Kennedy inspired his followers with his stories of identity, particularly with stories of the future he envisioned. His messages resonated with the people because he was able to craft and embody an inspirational future story for his country.
Kennedy the public figure was stunningly bold. He ran on the promise of getting his country moving again. And, he did just that, plunging headlong into the tumult of the 1960s. When he committed the nation to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the US had not even put a chimpanzee in space.
His future story was one of inclusion, one that made people dream and gave citizens a sense of purpose and meaning. After the difficult years of war and recovery, JFK exhorted Americans to see new possibilities and to give of themselves. Famously, he urged the people to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” He founded the Peace Corps and inspired a generation to serve, both abroad and in the realm of American education.
With his persona, his ideals and his initiatives, Kennedy gave his nation a sense of possibility. He made people dream. And, for too short a time, he made government and national service seem noble and worthwhile.