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Why We Still Love JFK

Sixty years after his assassination, John F. Kennedy is still the most popular president in modern history. A historian suggests two reasons beyond the obvious

spinner image president john f kennedy waving from an outdoor podium
Associated Press

John F. Kennedy remains by far the most popular modern president, with an impressive 90 percent public approval rating, compared with the next two, Ronald Reagan at 69 percent and Barack Obama at 63 percent.

To be sure, his charisma, courage and early death (at age 46) largely drive that affection. Kennedy, after all, brought good looks and an easy aristocratic charm to the White House, exuding the panache of a Hollywood star in service of his political ambition. His chic Francophile wife, Jacqueline, reinvented the role of first lady, enhancing his appeal to women. The impossibly photogenic war hero president launched our epic journey to the moon and literally staved off a nuclear holocaust when he resolved the Cuban missile crisis.

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People still love JFK for the memory of the loss of all that, a leader cut down in his prime, Camelot destroyed, images of his murder and the aftermath — Jackie’s dignity in her blood-spattered pink suit, a funeral like no other in modern times — forever seared in our minds.

And, yes, the memory of JFK injects a dose of nostalgia for a time when the president stood slightly above the fray of daily life and was not another familiar face immersed in the 24/7 internet news cycle and its addictive spectacle of politics and polycrisis. Time does make the heart grow fonder.

But in the fullness of time, charm without compassion will not endure as long as charisma with principle. Kennedy deployed his eloquence for positive purposes. I posit that there are two broader reasons why people the world over still revere Kennedy, both of which crystallized on consecutive summer days in Washington 60 years ago, namely peace — and justice.

spinner image president john f kennedy at a podium outdoors giving his pax americana speech at the nineteen sixty three american university commencement
President John F. Kennedy speaks at the American University commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech, known as the “Pax Americana” speech, Kennedy outlined his vision for world peace.
Arnie Sachs / MediaPunch/MediaPunch/IPx

“What kind of peace do I mean?” Kennedy asked on June 10, 1963, in a commencement address to the graduating students of American University. “What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”

Mere words, of course, but JFK (with help from speechwriter Ted Sorensen) voiced an aspiration that has never been more urgent. “Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave,” Kennedy went on. “I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women– not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

Grandiloquence, perhaps, coming from a commander in chief who approved of the CIA’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, presided over a growing U.S. presence in Vietnam and all but ordered a military coup in Saigon to preserve his options. (Though in fairness, it was his his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who first sent American military advisors to Vietnam.) But his skill at managing his immense power in the service of peace compels our admiration, despite his flaws.

Kennedy’s resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 was political leadership of the highest order, saving the planet from an imminent nuclear war and setting a course for the rest of his presidency.

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And throughout 1963, JFK held the line against a hawkish Joint Chiefs of Staff. Indeed, he marshaled his prestige as a peacemaker to impose on the generals a measure they hated: a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, which was a modest first step back from the abyss of nuclear war. When the Senate ratified the treaty in September 1963, Kennedy is said to have called it the greatest accomplishment of his presidency.

Kennedy’s sense of justice is another reason we still love Kennedy, as captured in a televised address from the Oval Office, barely more than 24 hours after his American University speech.

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” Kennedy said to the nation on the evening of June 11, 1963. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

The president was changing course on civil rights. In his first 30 months in office, Kennedy had tried accommodation with the forces of racism, and it hadn’t worked. Kennedy wouldn’t even sign an executive order banning discrimination in housing for fear of offending Southern congressmen. As nonviolent protesters against Jim Crow laws suffered increasingly brazen brutality from local police, Black leaders implored president to take a forceful public stand. Kennedy mostly deflected them — until June 11.

Then JFK challenged America with words many a white man did not want to hear.

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spinner image president kennedy speaking to a group in the east room of the white house
Just days after his televised address on civil rights, President John F. Kennedy speaks to labor leaders at the White House, asking them to help solve the problem of providing jobs for Black workers.
Bill Allen/Associated Press

“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home,” he said, “but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?”

And Kennedy did what he had not done since taking office: He endorsed the legislation banning racial discrimination in public accommodations.

“Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise,” he declared.

Conventional wisdom holds that JFK’s civil rights bill faced an uphill battle and that Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. deserve much of the credit for what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which of course, they do. But LBJ’s legislative accomplishment was made possible only by Kennedy’s moral leadership, and in part by JFK’s death, which generated a tsunami of grief and outrage that helped carry the legislation forward.

And in the end, the antidote for the nation’s loss is affectionate memory. We commemorate JFK for his strategy of peace, even if it remains unfulfilled. We are moved by his defense of racial justice, however belated. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see he took great risks on behalf of all Americans in resisting the forces of militarism and racism. We honor his martyrdom as the vindication of his courageous wisdom.

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