The Magazine

Dear Harvard . . . Sincerely, JFK

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Washington Post, like many publications, has been observing the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in considerable detail. No, make that lurid detail. No day has gone by in recent weeks without extended lists, recycled photographs, old reminiscences, new theories, and the sort of relentless politico-journalistic navel-gazing that has turned the reading public, in the Internet age, against the mainstream media. 

JFK

But The Scrapbook gives the Post credit for the occasional nugget, and last week that came in the form of a story, by reporter Valerie Strauss, about the Kennedy Library’s selective release of JFK’s academic records: his prep school transcripts, his College Board scores, and his 1935 application for admission to Harvard. Since Kennedy graduated from Harvard five years later, in 1940, having spent two freshman months at Princeton before withdrawing for unspecified health reasons, The Scrapbook is assuming that, initially, Harvard rejected him.

Reading the 78-year-old documents today, it is not hard to see why. This is the application of a self-entitled rich man’s son with poor grades whose own father (Harvard 1912), in a letter to the dean of freshmen, explains that his boy “has a very brilliant mind for the things in which he is interested, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested,” and who cannot even be troubled to get the names of his references right. (One of them, his father’s New Deal colleague Harry Hopkins, is referred to as “Harold Hopkins.”)

And in answer to the classic college-application question—“Why do you wish to come to Harvard?”—here is John F. Kennedy’s answer, in full. 

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better Liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I would sincerely hope I shall attain.

Now, The Scrapbook would be the last to say that adults should be judged on their adolescent selves, and history is full of impressive minds with atrocious transcripts (Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald). But the ambitious college applicant of today must read this ludicrous essay—especially since Harvard warned Kennedy that “the Committee will expect a careful answer to this question”—with a certain envy: JFK, in addition to being a mediocre student, seems barely troubled to answer Harvard’s questions with care, much less distinction. 

Of course, American society and higher education have changed in three-quarters of a century, and today, an applicant like John F. Kennedy would have trouble getting into considerably less exalted institutions than Harvard. On the other hand, Kennedy applied to Harvard in the middle of the Depression, and Harvard was probably happy to admit a student whose father could pay the tuition bills in full. In any case, the gamble paid off. Kennedy was perfectly adequate as an undergraduate, graduated on time, and later, as president, quipped on receiving an honorary degree in New Haven that he now had “the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree.”

Still, the details of JFK’s academic record, and the flaccid arrogance of his application essay, suggest to us that when journalists and historians write condescendingly, even abusively, about the brainpower of contemporary Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower) they should keep JFK’s immortal words—“[Harvard] is not just another college, but a university with something definite to offer”—in mind. ♦

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