He was impatient with his speech writers that day, unhappy about the draft of a talk honoring one of his heroes, Winston Churchill. But what he said April 9, 1963, may be an apt remembrance of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” the young American president said of the World War II British prime minister, then in his 80s. JFK would have been 80 today, an elder statesman still full of vigor and salty opinions. In 1961, he told a group of historians that he was, like Churchill, confident that he would prosper in the judgment of history “because I intend to write it!”
It was not to be. He was assassinated at 46, an event that traumatized millions. His image is frozen in perpetual youth, but millions yet unborn when he lived are mystified by the JFK legend and by history’s shifting standards. He may be known as much for his death and for posthumously reported personal scandals as for his life of considerable accomplishment.
JFK was, like Churchill, a man of words as well as deeds. The first president born in the 20th century, he was a Navy officer in the South Pacific in World War II, decorated for swimming between islands to rescue his men. Asked later how he became a hero, he was characteristically cool and self-deprecating: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”
For Kennedy, history and literature were real influences, not just speech writers’ tools. He used citations from statues in Boston of John Winthrop and William Lloyd Garrison. He equated eloquence and clarity with elegance and courage. In 1956, while bedridden from back operations, he wrote “Profiles in Courage,” about American politicians who, like Daniel Webster, were willing “to push his skiff from the shore alone.”
Kennedy was as fond of polls as any politician. After a close presidential election in which he defeated Republican Richard Nixon with less than a majority of the popular vote, he often consulted pollster Lou Harris. But Kennedy thought popularity was an asset presidents should not hoard, but spend.
In April 1961, he took full responsibility for a botched, American-supported invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, citing an old saying: “Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.”
Most White House occupants since 1963 have been relentlessly other-directed and almost obsessed with polls. Lyndon Johnson carried poll results in his pocket, citing them frequently until Americans turned against him and his policies in Vietnam.
Vietnam is a JFK legacy that his admirers have been slow to accept. The American presence in that Southeast Asian country, which he inherited from Dwight D. Eisenhower, dominated the presidency for a dozen years, longer than any other war in American history. Speculation about what would have happened in Vietnam in a second Kennedy term has fed conspiracy theories about his death in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The what-ifs of the past are a combustible mix, producing bad art and worse history. Had Kennedy lived, the United States might have been fighting in Vietnam a long time. JFK approved a troop buildup and authorized the use of napalm in bombing missions. The fourth paragraph of his inaugural address is a clear summons to military adventures abroad:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Kennedy would likely be impatient with laments. As a man of action, he favored Shakespeare’s speech of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt in praise of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Less like Hamlet, he was more like Shakespeare’s skeptics, who derided complaints and conspiracies based on the zodiac. Like Edmund in “King Lear,” JFK might have scoffed at “the excellent foppery of the world … fools by heavenly compulsion.” Kennedy would have responded to whining and inaction, as Cassius did in “Julius Caesar:” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Kennedy’s inner-directed beliefs did include a touch of fatalism that warred with his impatience. “Let us begin,” was not only the message of his inaugural, but his code of life.
His religious faith merged with his own cult of courage. “Do not pray for easy lives,” he once told a prayer breakfast. “Pray to be stronger men.” “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot,” Jacqueline Kennedy sang softly to Theodore H. White, who chronicled the family, “for happy ever-aftering here in Camelot.”
But JFK did not think of his era as “one brief, shining moment,” but as “a long, twilight struggle,” as a summons to be answered with the grace under pressure that defined courage.
He pledged to “get this country moving again” and ended his inaugural speech with secular urgency and his own faith:
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”