The Kennedy administration at 50

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Fifty years ago, John Kennedy’s first 100 days as president were drawing to a close and his approval ratings topped 80 percent. On his 100th day, Kennedy made headlines for throwing the hardest first pitch of the baseball season in presidential history. Two days later, the Russians put a man in space. Less than a week after that, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed spectacularly, and Kennedy would never again enjoy such popularity.

And yet, his assassination guaranteed that he would be remembered as an icon, an avatar of all that is fundamentally American, rather than as a complex human being with his share of detractors. On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration, both UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and its Center for Politics are trying to unpack the man behind the myth.

To that end, the Miller Center has begun a retrospective it calls “Kennedy Reconsidered.” It includes a new series of phone transcripts and upcoming public forums on Kennedy. Miller Center fellow Barbara Perry is also working on a biography of Rose Kennedy. The Center for Politics, meanwhile, has been running some of its own JFK programming. Center Director Larry Sabato is at work on a book about Kennedy’s 50-year legacy. Sabato also hosted a Center for Politics symposium last week entitled “JFK & Camelot: Political Image-Making.”

That panel of Kennedy experts consisted of two presidential campaign advisors, two Kennedy family biographers (including Perry) and a political journalist. They spoke at length about how the Kennedy mystique was crafted and ultimately overtook the man himself in the public consciousness.

“Kennedy was sold as a movie,” said Kennedy biographer and syndicated columnist Richard Reeves. The beautiful family, the backyard football, the relatability—all bought into by the public despite Kennedy’s philandering, crippled body and privileged background.

It was that image, the panel agreed, that (more than the Peace Corps, the space program or the Cuban Missile Crisis) gave us the Kennedy that consistently hovers near the top of public opinion polls ranking the presidents. The Kennedys “taught us how to be modern Americans,” said Reeves. “We didn’t know how to act as rich people. We were a rural people” when Kennedy took office, he said. Indeed, within weeks of Kennedy’s inauguration, men stopped wearing hats, let their hair grow longer and started wearing European-cut suits, all in imitation of the new president.

Everyone on the panel agreed that such a mythologizing of a president could never happen again. Sure, there’s Bush the cowboy and Obama the neo-JFK, but there are just too many voices in the media to allow one single image to control 100 percent of public perception. Fifty percent is enough of a struggle; we’re a much more divided country than we were in the ’60s. Frank Donatelli, panelist and Republican strategist, mentioned the massive shifts in the electoral maps of mid-century, as compared to the rigid socio-political divisions of today.

Sabato reminded the audience that the term “Camelot” wasn’t used until after Kennedy’s death. Jacqueline Kennedy, his widow, told Life magazine reporter Theodore White that when Jack’s chronic back pain kept him awake, he would put one record on the phonograph: the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Camelot. It ended on a lyric that Jackie couldn’t get out of her head after Jack’s death: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” And so would Kennedy’s place in American history be. “It was brief,” said Perry. “And it was shining.”

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