A contrarian view of the life of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on the 29th May 1917, the second son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. His father was a former bootlegger with extensive contacts with organised crime who had used his money to buy his way into Franklin Roosevelt's administration, ultimately becoming the US ambassador to the United Kingdom where he became known for his pro-Nazi sympathies.
Commonly known as Jack and later often simply as JFK, he attended the Choate School in Connecticut before spending a year studying under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. Although he had a place at Princeton University, illness prevented him from attending the beginning of term in 1935. Initially denied late admission until his father fixed the problem, he only attended the university for a month before illness again forced him to give up his studies. Recuperating in Arizona, he changed his mind and decided to try Harvard instead.
At Harvard he was very much in the shadow of his older brother Joe, the varsity football star who was swanning around the Harvard campus telling people that "When I become President, I will take you to the White House with me". Meanwhile his younger brother Jack was failing to make the swim team and boasted an unimpressive academic record, largely relying on additional tutoring services or attendance at 'cram school' to get him through his exams. The one thing that he did excel at was charming women; "I can now get my tail as often and as free as I want" he once bragged to his friend Lem Billings.
He eventually managed to graduate, with his thesis, despite being described as "badly written" being apparently sufficient (at least for an ambassador's son) for him to do so magnum cum laude. JFK though about attending Yale Law School, but illness once again put paid to that so he went to Sanford University in California, but was there for only there a term before illness again forced him back to the east coast to see his doctors.
Kennedy at war
In the autumn of 1940 JFK was drafted into the US Army but since he was enrolled at Stanford University this didn't take effect until 1941. His health was however poor and he failed the physical exams for both the Army and the Navy officer candidate schools. John was however determined to participate in the war and so Papa Joe arranged for some friendly doctors to give him the necessary clean bill of health and he joined the Office of Naval Intelligence as an ensign in October 1941. Despite being declared unfit for duty in April 1942, the US Navy agreed in June 1942 to his request for transfer to sea duty and after attending midshipman school, when his father again intervened to ensure that his son won a posting to his desired motor torpedo boat command (the glamorous naval equivalent of being a fighter pilot.)
However the navy seemed reluctant to assign him to active command and JFK was not particularly happy when he was posted to Rhode Island as an instructor. A quiet word with his grandfather Honey Fitz who just happened to know the chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, one David Walsh, ensured that he was eventually transferred to the South Pacific where he was to spend seventeen months on active service.
JFK was eventually placed in command of PT 109 and sent out on a mission to intercept a Japanese convoy and on the 2nd August 1943 was run over by a Japanese destroyer. This left JFK and his surviving crew adrift in the sea, but they managed to swim to dry land where they spent seven days avoiding detection by the enemy before being rescued. Being Joe Kennedy's son his experiences attracted considerable press coverage and won for JFK the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart. It is however worth nothing that this was the only occasion in the entire war when a PT boat managed to get itself rammed by an enemy vessel. (Generally speaking PT boats were fast enough to get out of the way.) "He wasn't a particularly good boat commander" was how his commanding officer explained the incident, whilst General Douglas MacArthur wanted him court-martialled for incompetence.
Nevertheless JFK managed to escape censure and later made the rank of lieutenant becoming a PT instructor in Florida. After a further operation on his back he was honourably discharged in March 1945.
Politics is like war. It takes three things to win.
The first is money and the second is money and the third is money.
The pivotal moment in JFK's life was when his older brother Joe got blown up in 1941. This meant that JFK was now the focus of his father's ambition, who told him that it was now his responsibility to run for Congress. "It was like being drafted" was how JFK himself described the experience. The subsequent rapid progress of his political career is an object lesson in the importance of money in the American political system.
When it was decided that JFK would contest the 11th Congressional District in Massachusetts, papa Joe spent something between $250,000 and $300,000 simply to get his son nominated as the Democratic party candidate. This was a phenomenal amount of money at the time and as Joe himself admitted "With that sort of money I could elect my chauffeur". As with all of JFK's election campaigns no one is quite sure where all the money went, as a lot of it was simply passed around in brown paper envelopes as out-right electoral bribes. It was a similar story when JFK ran for the senate against the Republican Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952; "Cabot was simply overwhelmed by money" as Dwight Eisenhower put it. This time around papa Joe pumped several million dollars into the campaign, his principal contribution being the $500,000 he 'lent' to John J. Fox, the owner of the near-bankrupt Boston Post in order to obtain that newspaper's endorsement. As JFK himself was to later admit "You know, we had to buy that paper or I'd have been licked."
Kennedy the Congressman
Despite the impression later given by the Kennedy machine, JFK was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'liberal'. Indeed, he was described by Tip O'Neill as "only nominally a Democrat" and JFK himself admitted that "I am not a liberal at all, I'm a realist". In fact his principal political platform was anti-communism and he was on good terms with Joe McCarthy whom he once described as "a great American patriot". When the Senate finally voted to condemn McCarthy, JFK couldn't bring himself to vote against his old friend and simply abstained (he claimed he was to ill to vote), becoming the only Democrat in the Senate who failed to vote against McCarthy. Indeed his politics were largely indistinguishable from those of his future presidential opponent Richard Nixon; Hubert Humphrey (who was very much a liberal) went so far as to call JFK the 'Democratic Nixon', whilst JFK himself openly congratulated Richard Nixon when he beat the left-wing Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in a contest for the Senate in 1950, and had even personally contributed $1,000 in cash (courtesy of papa Joe) to Nixon's campaign funds.
It is undisputable that JFK's record in Congress was largely undistinguished; he turned up and voted and that was about it. The reason for this was quite simple; he never accomplished much in the House of Representatives because he spent all his time there building his campaign for the Senate, and he never achieved anything as a Senator because he was too busy running for president.
Having tried and failed to win nomination as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1956, JFK decided to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination for 1960. This was complicated by the fact that Adlai Stevenson (for reasons of his own) declined to formally run, but indicated that he was willing to accept the nomination if asked. Therefore the Kennedy machine put a great deal of effort into winning the nomination on the first ballot, knowing that if they failed to do so, that Stevenson would likely emerge as the compromise candidate. Once again papa Joe's money was needed to grease the political wheels, as winning nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency wasn't that easy for JFK as much of the party would have preferred to nominate an actual liberal.
Kennedy the womaniser
The White House has been the home of many a serial adulterer but probably none so prolific as John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His most famous 'conquests' include Marilyn Monroe (shared with brother Bobby) and Judith Campbell Exener (shared with Mafia boss Sam Giancana), but it would be a sheer impossibility to enumerate the long succession of secretaries, campaign workers, waitresses, stewardesses, actresses etc etc that JFK bedded during his life. Nor was he averse to hiring call girls should the need arise and he famously prepared for his televised debates with Nixon by having a prostitute sent to his room.
This of course, represented some inner compulsion and JFK once claimed to Harold Macmillan that he needed to bed a new girl once every three days otherwise he would get a headache. But like many womanisers it doesn't appear as if he was a very capable lover as Za Za Gabor, although she would later deny it, once described her experience with JFK as the "most uneventful two minutes of my life".
His womanising was more than simply a personal quirk, it was potentially damaging to both his political career and the national interest. His naval career was somewhat marred by the affair he had an affair with one Inga Arvad who was suspected of being a Nazi agent, and whilst he was president his many 'affairs' included a former New York prostitute named Suzy Chang, who later became part of the same 'stable' of girls as Christine Keeler, and Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German spy. The Kennedys went great lengths to keep all this quiet, since it goes without saying that his political career would have ended had any of these numerous liaisons become public knowledge.
Of course JFK was actually married for much of this time, although his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier on 12th September 1953 appears to have been his father's idea, who believed that she would bring a much needed touch of sophistication to the Kennedy family. In this regard papa Joe was quite right as Jacky soon became a significant asset to her husband's political career. She was however, never happy with her husband's philandering and used to retaliate by going out on mammoth shopping sprees. This was much to JFK's annoyance and frustration, particularly since he couldn't do anything about it for fear that she might of course spill the beans to the press.
Kennedy the intellectual
According to Thomas Reeves "No national figure has ever so consistently and unashamedly used others to manufacture a personal reputation as a great thinker and scholar." To put it simply, JFK's reputation as an intellectual and author was simply an invention of the Kennedy machine.
Although credited as the author of Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage, JFK did not actually write either of these books. Why England Slept was described as "a very sloppy job, mostly magazine and newspaper clippings stuck together" before it was rewritten and knocked into shape by Arthur Krock of the New York Times amongst others. It didn't sell all that well either, it only became a 'best seller' because old Joe arranged for the purchase of some 30,000 to 40,000 copies which were then stored at the family mansion at Hyannis Port. It was a similar case with Profiles in Courage, described as a "disorganised, somewhat incoherent melange from secondary sources" that was then rewritten by Theodore Sorenson and a team of academics into something readable. Even then the fact that the book later won the Pulitzer Prize is more of a testament to the power of papa Joe's lobbying then any inherent quality of the book itself.
The stream of articles that also appeared under JFK's name in periodicals ranging from Life to the Georgetown Law Review were all ghosted by a variety of academics. This was all part of a campaign to portray him as an intellectual and has been described as one of "the biggest frauds in American political history".
Kennedy the patient
It is difficult to overemphasise how ill JFK was for most of his life. He spent much of his life in and out of hospital seeking cures for a wide variety of ailments and on more than one occasion had the last rites read to him. In addition to the Addison's disease, JFK also suffered from colitis, abdominal pain, diarrhea, prostatis, repeated urinary tract infections, nausea, dehydration, athritis and acute back pain. He was thus prescribed with cortisone for the Addison's, heavy doses of antibiotics, given procaine injections to control the back pain, antispasmodics such as lomotil and trasentine for his colitis, testosterone to counter his weight loss, various steroids, ritalin etc etc.
By the time he became President his back problem was so severe that he only functioned as president through the help of one Max Jacobson, otherwise known as 'Doctor Feelgood', who despite the loss of his medical licence, was trusted to administer regular injections of amphetamine and other goodies, on which of course JFK became increasingly dependent, thus making him perhaps America's one and only junkie president. All of this was hidden from the American public, since it directly contradicted JFK's image as a vibrant, youthful and dynamic politician, and the Kennedys lived in mortal fear that the truth would somehow leak out.
Kennedy and the 1960 Presidential election
JFK's victory in the 1960 election is often portrayed as an against the odds victory achieved thanks to a clever campaign which surmounted the disadvantages of his Roman Catholic faith, youth and inexperience. The truth is that the Kennedys expected it to be an easy win. There was a recession and JFK was plugging away at the issue of the 'missile gap', the belief that the Soviet Union had a superiority over the US in nuclear weapons. (When McNamara later inadvertently leaked the truth that the US enjoyed an overwhelming superiority over their rival superpower, JFK simply shrugged away the issue with the words "who ever believed in the missile gap?")
Kennedy's youth is a myth, he was forty-three, and Nixon was forty-seven, a difference that hardly signifies and it is debatable what effect his Catholicism had on the election since Richard Nixon refused to make Kennedy's religion an election issue (He later went on record stating that JFK's victory was "good for the country" because it laid the question of religion to rest.) Whilst it was true that there was plenty of anti-Catholic sentiment around, the Kennedy campaign managed to suppress a great deal of this by handing out bribes to suitable Protestant ministers to keep their mouths shut. It has also been argued that his religion was what won him the election; Catholic voters traditionally supported the Republican Party and whilst Eisenhower got 60% of the Catholic vote, Nixon only received 22%, the lowest ever recorded for a Republican presidential candidate in the twentieth century.
The televised debates with Nixon are now regarded as a landmark event in American politics, signalling the point at which television and the importance of image became paramount in politics. It is instructive to note in this regard that whilst the polls showed that TV viewers preferred Kennedy, those who heard the radio broadcast thought that Nixon had won the debate. The difference between listener and viewer can be explained by the fact that the Kennedy campaign persuaded the TV studio to insist that both candidates stood during the debate (Nixon had a bad knee) and to turn up the heat in the studio (Nixon had a tendency to sweat), thus ensuring that JFK looked better on screen even though Nixon had the better of the argument.
As noted earlier, the Kennedy campaign expected to win easily with 53% or more of the votes cast, and they were shocked that the actual result, 34,227,496 to 34,107,646 was so close. The margin in the electoral college was slightly more convincing at 303 to 219, but only because Kennedy 'won' both Illinois and Texas. The reason why the Kennedys were so shocked at the result was that they had put so much effort into making sure the electorate would make the right choice in the first place.
In Illinois Nixon won 92 out of 102 counties but still lost the state due to a massive pro-Kennedy plurality in Chicago, courtesy of the Richard Daley machine and Mafia boss Sam Giancana (Sam Giancana to Judith Campbell Exner "Listen honey, if it wasn't for me you boyfriend wouldn't even be in the White House".) Texas was delivered by that old crook Lyndon B. Johnson; one ward in Texas returned over 6,000 votes for Kennedy despite having less than 5,000 registered voters in total. All of this was known at the time. Eisenhower told Nixon that he should contest the result, but Nixon decided not to, fearing that the presidency itself would be degraded if the matter was dragged through the courts, and even persuaded the New York Herald Tribune to stop publishing a series of articles exposing the frauds.
All of this is still news to some people, but there appears to be no dispute over the fact that the Kennedy campaign did practice electoral fraud on a significant scale, the only argument appears to be over whether it actually effected the result. JFK apologists appear to take the position of admitting that, whilst Nixon should have won Illinois, the scale of fraud in Texas wasn't large enough to change the result.
Kennedy the President: "How could I have been so stupid."
The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described the Kennedy presidency as "like watching the Borgia brothers take over a respectable North Italian City", which signified the stark fact that the whole Kennedy political machine was something quite separate from the Democratic party itself. Sworn in as President on 20th January 1961 JFK now found himself faced with a novel dilemma; having spent his entire political career to date simply running for office, there was no longer any higher office to run for and he was now required to actually do something. His tenure in office was to be largely dominated by foreign affairs, firstly by the Berlin crisis which began in August 1961, when the East German government began building the Berlin Wall but principally by the question of Cuba.
Cuba was then (and still is at the moment) a Communist nation located just a few miles south of the coast of Florida. This was a matter of concern to many, particularly such an avowed anti-communist as JFK. The CIA had for some time been training Cuban exiles with the intention of launching some kind of counter-revolution, and it was perhaps therefore inevitable that JFK would succumb to the temptation to authorise an attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime. Unfortunately for the president the landing of the Cuban exile forces at the Bay of Pigs turned out to be a complete and utter disaster. (It should be noted that this plan had nothing to do with Dwight Eisenhower as such, who never authorised any such plan and was later to lampoon Kennedy's actions as a "Profile in Timidity and Indecision". The responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle was entirely JFK's as he himself, to his credit, accepted.)
The whole Bay of Pigs debacle had a more serious consequence, since JFK's 'indecision and timidity' convinced the Soviet Union that they had found a president who could be pushed around. His Soviet counterpart Nikita Krushchev became convinced that JFK was "a weak man". He was, as it happens, quite wrong, as JFK's stand over the Cuban missile crisis was to demonstrate, but it does explain why Krushchev thought he could get away with putting nuclear missiles into Cuba in the first place.
As we now know, JFK succeeded in persuading the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba and thus defused the crisis, although his settlement of the crisis seems less impressive these days now that we know that he secretly agreed to remove US Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Greece. The benefit of hindsight also allows us to note that JFK permitted the Soviets to maintain a considerable military presence in Cuba thereafter, which allowed Cuba to later stage its own military interventions in South America and even Africa, much to the detriment of US interests.
Although publicly victorious over Cuba, privately JFK was frustrated at his failure to unseat Fidel Castro and became obsessed with Cuba and the idea of getting rid of their president. He was responsible for a number of attempts to assassinate the Cuban president, some of which were quite bizarre in conception and all of which failed. He also approved the CIA plan to ferment a military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem President of South Vietnam. Although it is said that he was shocked when he heard that this resulted in the murder of both Diem and his wife, this might well be simply regarded as further evidence of his political naivety.
Kennedy and Civil rights
The one domestic issue which the Kennedy presidency was forced to address was that of civil rights. Here it must be said that JFK's reputation as a civil rights activist is largely ill deserved, as even his supporters now admit that his interest in civil rights was "largely motivated by self serving political considerations". This is illustrated by the manner in which whilst still a Senator he voted in favour of a Civil Rights Act, but also supported an amendment that rendered its provisions virtually unenforceable. Indeed his whole position on civil rights was dominated by his desire to appear as both a supporter of civil rights and of the white segregationists in order to win both sets of votes.
Whilst JFK argued for a new Civil Rights Act during his 1960 presidential election campaign (and thus 70 per cent of the Black vote went to Kennedy) as soon as he was elected he simply temporised for the next two years. Indeed the main focus of his administration was to try and persuade civil rights activists such as the Freedom Riders to end their activities, since JFK believed that he needed those southern white votes to get reelected and didn't want anyone else rocking the boat. It is clear that Kennedy didn't really understand civil rights; he was looking for some kind of compromise deal between the civil rights movement and the segregationists that would keep the peace in the south. Thus he was viewed with deep suspicion by the civil rights movement.
It was not until May 1963 that JFK finally understood that civil rights was a moral question rather than a political one, unfortunately he lacked the political skills necessary to get any Civil Rights Act through Congress, and thus any progress was of neccessity delayed.
"I wanna die just like JFK, I wanna die in the USA"
The Jesus and Mary Chain
On Friday, 22nd November 1963 JFK was travelling in a motorcade through Dalley Plaza in Dallas, Texas when he was shot three times by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was himself shot dead two days later in the basement of the Dallas police station by one Jack Ruby. It is perhaps poetic justice that a man who was prepared to sanction assassination as a tool of foreign policy was himself to die by an assassin's bullet.
His successor Lyndon B. Johnson set up the Warren Commission to investigate JFK's death which concluded that Oswald acted alone. Sometime later the House Select Committee on Assassinations came to the slightly different conclusion that Oswald was likely part of a conspiracy to kill the president, although the committee did not uncover sufficient evidence identify precisely who the conspirators were, although the most likely candidates include the Cubans (either variety), the Mafia, or as is often suggested, that most nebulous of concepts the 'military-industrial complex'.
The reality of John F. Kennedy
As if to prove Lincoln's assertion "that you can fool some of the people all of the time" the myth of Camelot has taken a long time to die, but his carefully crafted public image has gradually cracked with a steady stream of revelations regarding his health, his womanising, his contacts with organised crime, the plots to kill Fidel Castro etc etc
It is hard to think of another American political figure of the twentieth century whose image is so much at variance with the truth and it remains a wonder to many as to how a rich conservative of very limited abilities has somehow been transformed into a hero of the American left. It remains a truism that were in not for his father's money it is unlikely that he would have ever been elected to any political office. But such is the nature of American politics; he was not the first, and unlikely to be the last of whom this could be said.
His substantive achievements were limited. All of his domestic policy initiatives in respect of health care, tax reductions and civil rights failed to get anywhere since JFK simply lacked the political skills necessary to get any serious reforms through Congress. Indeed of these policies it was the proposed tax reductions that JFK really cared about at the time, because he thought such cuts would get him re-elected. (It's worth noting that the scale of these proposed tax reductions were pretty substantial, sufficient to cause any modern American liberal to have a fit.) Although some have him given the credit for the Civil Rights Act 1964, this was actually drafted by his brother and passed by LBJ, who did indeed possess the political skills to get the necessary legislation through Congress.
We should however give him credit for not blowing up the world in 1962 (although he did get himself into that particular mess in the first place) and for negotiating the Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the first step in the process that was later to lead to SALT and the ending of the Cold War. To what extent he was responsible for the country's later entanglement in Vietnam is much debated; a great deal depends on whether you accept the assessment of Robert McNamara that JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam rather than become involved in a fruitless ground war.
He had a team of very able speech writers, most notably Theodore Sorenson, and orated a number of particularly memorable addresses which many people found genuinely inspiring. (Although presumably they had an off day when they had JFK refer to himself as a 'jam doughnut' in West Berlin.) No one of course, knows to what extent JFK actually believed what he was saying; certainly as a presidential candidate and later as president he began espousing views that were far more liberal than those which he appeared to have held whilst a Congressman. Some have suggested that his experience of campaigning in the West Virginia primary, when he discovered (much to his surprise) that there was such a thing as poverty in the United States, explained his conversion. Others suggest that he simply said what was necessary to bring home the votes of the Democratic faithful.
Admittedly he'd shag anything in a skirt, he treated his wife appalingly, and he was nowhere near as smart as brother Bobby, but he does appear as a very likeable character, possessing considerable quantities of personal charm which was of great value in the business of winning votes, and in bringing the media onside. And despite his earlier posturing he did eventually come to the conclusion that constitutional rights should be applied to all regardless of the colour of their skin, which in the context of American politics in the early 1960s was a fairly revolutionary position to adopt. Although a very long way from being a 'great president', his career was tragically cut short by his assassination and it could be argued that he was simply denied the opportunity to truly make his mark.
- Robert Dallek, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life (2003)
- Paul Johnson, History of the American People Weidenfeld and Nicholson (2000)
- John F. Kennedy at www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkennedyJ.htm
- The official biography at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/jk35.html