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The Image Endures

JFK's approval remains sky-high.

1:32 PM, Dec 7, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Prior to the presidency, Kennedy could often be found on the cover of Life magazine with such hard-hitting exposés as "Senator Kennedy Goes A Courting." This was part of a conscious effort to market Kennedy in advance of his presidential run, to present him as a young, vigorous leader. The Kennedys were ahead of their time in understanding how to generate positive press coverage. Joe Kennedy had been involved in the movie business, and JFK himself had worked as a newspaperman. During the 1960 Democratic primary in Wisconsin, an exasperated Humphrey rhetorically asked of JFK, “Does he own all the newspapers or does he have something on every publisher?” Of course he didn't, but the Kennedy family understood the press and were thus able to sell an image, one that was often contrary to the facts. For instance, those "legendary" Kennedy touch football games masked the fact that JFK's health was very poor. He suffered from Addison's disease and colitis, and was regularly in and out of the hospital.

After his assassination, there were three different sets of political actors who each burnished the JFK image. The first, most obviously, was his brother Robert F. Kennedy, but he wasn't the only one. Lyndon Johnson's famous "Let Us Continue" speech to the 88th Congress after the assassination explicitly exhorted the legislature to pass the New Frontier legislative program in memory of the "greatest leader of our time:"

On the 20th day of January, in 19 and 61, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished "in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet." "But," he said, "let us begin."

This is our challenge -- not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment, but to continue on our course so that we may fulfill the destiny that history has set for us.

The Congress listened -- and in relatively short order passed Kennedy's tax cut, the Civil Rights Act, and LBJ's Economic Opportunity Act.

Finally, you had an early clique of hagiographical writers, often connected to the JFK administration, who described Kennedy in very flattering terms. Arthur Schlesinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is the best example of this. Never one for understatement, Schlesinger worried that his memoir would not:

...come close to recapturng the exceptional qualities of John F. Kennedy as a man and as a President. But I hope it will suggest something of the way in which he quickened the heart and mind of the nation, inspired the young, met great crises, led our society to new possibilities of justice and our world to new possibilities of peace and left behind so glowing an imperishable a memory.

And all that was before breakfast!

What to make of all this? Obviously, you can't construct an image out of whole cloth, and there is a lot to recommend Kennedy, who enjoyed amazingly high approval ratings all through his brief tenure. The twenty years between Eisenhower and Reagan were the most tumultuous of any since World War II, and Kennedy strikes me as a substantially better president than Carter, Johnson, and Nixon (while Ford, who inherited the job under impossibly difficult circumstances, is quite under-appreciated). What's more, of all the major contenders for the 1960 presidential nomination (not only Nixon, but also Johnson, Humphrey, Stevenson), Kennedy easily comes across as the best of the lot. Even so, the reverential way in which Kennedy is remembered is due in part to the strategically constructed images that surrounded him in both life and death. As the Gallup poll pretty clearly demonstrates, those images endure, even 50 years on.

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