Books… articles… films… documentaries… next to Abraham Lincoln, there has been more media devoted to U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy than any other president. And, like Lincoln, Kennedy too soon became one with the ages. Much of the media consists of assassination conspiracy fodder. There’s enough of that to fill every floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Longitudes won’t add to the depository. But near the anniversary of that horrific day in 1963, especially for those unfamiliar or too young, here are some biographical details – and one memory – concerning the 35th U.S. president:
- Kennedy was born in Boston in 1917, second eldest of nine children of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, both grandchildren of Irish immigrants. His grandfather on his mother’s side was mayor of Boston
- Father Joseph P. Kennedy was a successful businessman, then U.S. ambassador to the UK. Older brother, Joe Jr., was being groomed for a political career, but died when his plane exploded over England during World War II
- The Kennedy family was very athletic and competitive. Joe Sr. encouraged machismo in his sons, and some Kennedy biographers claim this contributed to JFK’s womanizing
- As a naval officer during World War II, Kennedy’s gunboat, PT-109, was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. His subsequent actions in rescuing his crew earned him a Purple Heart, three bronze service stars, and other medals. The wartime drama was later depicted in a movie starring Cliff Robertson
- In the 1950s Kennedy co-authored, with speechwriter Ted Sorenson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, about principled senators like John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster (I was assigned the book while a high school sophomore)
- Kennedy was a voracious reader. He was also a “speed reader,” having trained himself to read 1,200 words per minute
- Kennedy married the wealthy and beautiful socialite Jacqueline Bouvier. They had two children, Caroline and the late John Kennedy, Jr. (“John-John,” who, like his uncle and an aunt, died in an aviation accident). Kennedy’s family, as well as his good looks and oratorical skills, endeared him to the press and much of the country
- The first televised presidential debate, in 1960, was between Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy projected poise and confidence in front of the camera, as opposed to Nixon’s unease, and many historians believe this influenced the election outcome
- Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to be elected president. His religion became a major issue during the 1960 election
- The high point of Kennedy’s brief presidency was peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. This confrontation with the Soviets was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. But Kennedy’s combined firmness and restraint averted a catastrophe
- The low point of Kennedy’s presidency was the failed CIA-orchestrated U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which preceded the missile crisis
- Like his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy was concerned about the spread of communism – the so-called “domino theory” – and he increased America’s military presence in South Vietnam. The Vietnam War later mushroomed under Presidents Johnson and Nixon
- Kennedy was very popular in Hollywood circles. Frank Sinatra was a friend and supporter, and Kennedy dated actress Gene Tierney while still a congressman
- For many Americans, the brief Kennedy era symbolized a verdant spring after a long, frigid winter. Space exploration, civil rights, nuclear arms reduction, civic volunteerism, social activism, environmental stewardship… all of this gained momentum after JFK’s election.
I was five years old when Kennedy was shot. I don’t recall the day of the assassination, but I do remember the funeral. The horse-drawn caisson rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, Jackie’s mourning, and especially the flag-draped casket, brought on maybe my first palpable feelings of sadness, even though I couldn’t totally grasp the meaning. My dad was a Republican, and my mom claims the only time she saw him cry was after Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, was killed.
Those were different times.