Category Archives: John F. Kennedy

When image trumps ideology: How JFK created the template for the modern presidency

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President John F. Kennedy watches as planes conduct anti-sub operations during maneuvers off the North Carolina coast in April 1962.
Associated Press

Steven Watts, University of Missouri-Columbia

Even at John F. Kennedy’s centennial on May 29, 2017, the 35th president remains an enigma. We still struggle to come to a clear consensus about a leader frozen in time – a man who, in our mind’s eye, is forever young and vigorous, cool and witty.

While historians have portrayed him as everything from a nascent social justice warrior to a proto-Reaganite, his political record actually offers little insight into his legacy. A standard “Cold War liberal,” he endorsed the basic tenets of the New Deal at home and projected a stern, anti-Communist foreign policy. In fact, from an ideological standpoint, he differed little from countless other elected officials in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party or the liberal wing of the Republican Party.

Much greater understanding comes from adopting an altogether different strategy: approaching Kennedy as a cultural figure. From the beginning of his career, JFK’s appeal was always more about image than ideology, the emotions he channeled than the policies he advanced.

Generating an enthusiasm more akin to that of a popular entertainer than a candidate for national office, he was arguably America’s first “modern” president. Many subsequent presidents would follow the template he created, from Republicans Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump to Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

A cultural icon

JFK pioneered the modern notion of the president as celebrity. The scion of a wealthy family, he became a national figure as a young congressman for his good looks, high-society diversions and status as an “eligible bachelor.”

He hobnobbed with Hollywood actors such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis, hung out with models and befriended singers. He became a fixture in the big national magazines – Life, Look, Time, The Saturday Evening Post – which were more interested in his personal life than his political positions.

Later, Ronald Reagan, the movie actor turned politician, and Donald Trump, the tabloid fixture and star of “The Apprentice,” would translate their celebrity impulses into electoral success. Meanwhile, the saxophone-playing Bill Clinton and the smooth, “no drama” Obama – ever at ease on the talk show circuit – teased out variations of the celebrity role on the Democratic stage.

After Kennedy, it was the candidate with the most celebrity appeal who often triumphed in the presidential sweepstakes.

A master of the media

Kennedy also forged a new path with his skillful utilization of media technology. With his movie-star good looks, understated wit and graceful demeanor, he was a perfect fit for the new medium of television.

He was applauded for his televised speeches at the 1956 Democratic convention, and he later prevailed in the famous television debates of the 1960 presidential election. His televised presidential press conferences became media works of art as he deftly answered complex questions, handled reporters with aplomb and laced his responses with wit, quoting literary figures like the Frenchwoman Madame de Staël.

Two decades later, Reagan proved equally adept with television, using his acting skills to convey an earnest patriotism, while the lip-biting Clinton projected the natural empathy and communication skills of a born politician. Obama’s eloquence before the cameras became legendary, while he also became an early adopter of social media to reach and organize his followers.

Trump, of course, emerged from a background in reality television and adroitly employed Twitter to circumvent a hostile media establishment, generate attention and reach his followers.

The vigorous male

Finally, JFK reshaped public leadership by exuding a powerful, masculine ideal. As I explore in my book, “JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier,” he emerged in a postwar era colored by mounting concern over the degeneration of the American male. Some blamed the shifting labor market for turning men from independent, manual laborers into corpulent, desk-bound drones within sprawling bureaucracies. Others pointed to suburban abundance for transforming men into diaper-changing denizens of the easy chair and backyard barbecue. And many thought that the advancement of women in the workplace would emasculate their male coworkers.

John F. Kennedy smokes a cigar and reads The New York Times on his boat off the coast of Hyannisport.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Enter Jack Kennedy, who promised a bracing revival of American manhood as youthful and vigorous, cool and sophisticated.

In his famous “New Frontier” speech, he announced that “young men are coming to power – men who are not bound by the traditions of the past – young men who can cast off the old slogans and delusions and suspicions.”

In a Sports Illustrated article titled “The Soft American,” he advocated a national physical fitness crusade. He endorsed a tough-minded realism to shape the counterinsurgency strategies that were deployed to combat Communism, and he embraced the buccaneering style of the CIA and the Green Berets. He championed the Mercury Seven astronauts as sturdy, courageous males who ventured out to conquer the new frontier of space.

JFK’s successors adopted many of these same masculine themes. Reagan positioned himself as a manly, tough-minded alternative to a weak, vacillating Jimmy Carter. Clinton presented himself as a pragmatic, assertive, virile young man whose hardscrabble road to success contrasted with the privileged, preppy George H.W. Bush. Obama impressed voters as a vigorous, athletic young man who scrimmaged with college basketball teams – a contrast to the cranky, geriatric John McCain and a stiff, pampered Mitt Romney.

More recently, of course, Trump’s outlandish masculinity appealed to many traditionalists unsettled by a wave of gender confusion, women in combat, weeping millennial “snowflakes” and declining numbers of physically challenging manufacturing jobs in the country’s post-industrial economy. No matter how crudely, the theatrically male businessman promised a remedy.

So as we look back at John F. Kennedy a century after his birth, it seems ever clearer that he ascended the national stage as our first modern president. Removed from an American political tradition of grassroots electioneering, sober-minded experience and bourgeois morality, this youthful, charismatic leader reflected a new political atmosphere that favored celebrity appeal, media savvy and masculine vigor. He was the first American president whose place in the cultural imagination dwarfed his political positions and policies.

The ConversationJust as style made the man with Kennedy, it also remade the American presidency. It continues to do so today.

Steven Watts, Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The endless whodunnit: why conspiracy theorists will never accept who shot JFK

Matthew Ashton, Nottingham Trent University

The famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding the rifle he would later use to kill JFK was recently confirmed by forensic research to be authentic. At the time of his arrest, Oswald told the Dallas police that it was a fake, part of an effort to frame him. Since then, people all over the world have produced a small mountain of “evidence” to support this thesis.

This new authentication should put these conspiracy theories to rest. In reality, it will change nothing. Those who want to believe will in all likelihood cling to their theory with the certainty of religious faith. Their usual response to new facts is either to claim they’re false, question the motives of those behind them, or try to fit them into their own worldview.

The truth is not enough

Police, academics, and other experts have been dissecting the JFK conspiracy arguments for years without making much of a dent in their armies of loyal adherents. Tenuous facts and half-truths are pieced together, and leaps in logic are made every time a new piece of evidence emerges that doesn’t fit the conspiracy narrative.

Confirmed as genuine: Oswald with the murder weapon.
Warren Commission

Even today, many of the same old arguments are trotted out in defence of the idea that it was a vast and sinister conspiracy: that a single shooter could not have made the kill; that Oswald was a bad shot; that Oswald couldn’t have fired so many shots in that time. The list goes on, and on.

This irrationality follows a familiar pattern. A few years ago, Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to accusations that he had been born in Kenya.

But many of those involved in the so-called Birther movement immediately declared it a fake. They’d been claiming for the best part of two years that Obama had resisted making his birth certificate public because he had something to hide. When it was produced, they promptly decided that its existence was confirmation that they were right all along.

No place for reason

This is why the conspiracy theorists who believe that Oswald was set up, and that JFK was in fact murdered by some combination of the mob, the Cubans, the Teamsters, the Soviets, the CIA, the military and Lyndon B Johnson, will continue to believe this no matter what. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, you can’t reason someone out of a viewpoint they were never reasoned into in the first place.

Conspiracy theories appear to be on the rise with seemingly more people willing to believe in them than ever before. Going on the current evidence, it seems that the US is more susceptible to this unhealthy fixation than many other countries. This was something observed by Richard Hofstadter, the famed historian, in 1964, when he referred to the “paranoid style” in American history, an attempt to explain this phenomena.

Long live paranoia

Since then a variety of explanations have been advanced to account for why conspiracy theories are so embedded in the US’s political culture. One is simply the fact that America was founded on a conspiracy, with the Founding Fathers plotting together to overthrow the British colonial regime. A fear of tyranny and government overreach has been part of the political culture ever since.

It’s often forgotten that after the revolution the Alien and Sedition Act was passed by the Adams administration to persecute his political enemies. For many Americans, government should either be suspected or feared.

Equally, the mainstream media has fed this paranoia. The past few decades have seen a steady stream of movies and TV shows based around conspiracy theories turning out to be true. The most obvious example is the X-Files which repeatedly told viewers that “the truth is out there”.

Is the truth out there?

The most famous film on the subject of the Kennedy assassination is probably Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991. While entertaining, it does take tremendous liberties with certain details. For instance, one sequence of the film shows a shadowy figure faking the photo of Oswald holding the gun. Who this figure is, who they work for, and what their motive is, is never established and this sums up the main problem with Stone’s work. It doesn’t always makes clear what are hard facts, what is conjecture, and what is entirely invented for dramatic purposes.

Sorry, Mr Stone, but it’s the real deal.
Hany Farid

Even the news media isn’t immune from this madness. Some TV stations and media commentators skate uncomfortably close to giving such theories a credence they don’t deserve.

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories always sell, and as competition for ratings increases, it’s easy to see their attraction for the unscrupulous. In a country where freedom of speech is venerated as the most important right, it’s perhaps no surprise that some would take it to extremes, giving a platform to anyone with an opinion and a product to plug.

When conspiracy theories come true

The internet also plays a powerful role. It’s created a maze of echo chambers where people only hear what they want to hear. While previously those wanting to believe were largely isolated within their communities, they can now gather together online in their thousands to share ideas and theories. This leads to conspiracies being spread across the globe, each time being modified and amplified. The creator of the theory then takes the fact that everyone else is talking about it as evidence that there must be something in it.

Finally, there is the inescapable fact that sometimes this distrust of government is rooted in good cause. The shock of the Watergate revelations and the Iran-Contra scandal still reverberate throughout the American political psyche. More recently we were taken into the War in Iraq on the basis of at best faulty intelligence, at worst a lie.

As a result, it’s perhaps not unsurprising that people are much more willing to believe in conspiracies to explain the complexity of modern life. However, those who believe we never went to the moon will never change their minds, neither I suspect will the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists.

The Conversation

Matthew Ashton, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

USA: The Day Kennedy Died

USA: JFK – 50 Years On

Today in History: 27 May 1967

USA: The USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) Launched

On this day in 1967, the US Navy aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) (John F. Kennedy-class aircraft carrier) was launched and was commissioned on the 7th September 1968. It was the last conventionally powered aircraft carrier built for the US Navy. ‘Big John,’ as it is known, was named after former US president John F. Kennedy. The carrier was decommissioned on the 1st August 2007. The carrier’s name will be carried by the future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79).

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Article: Plan to Kill JFK

The link below is to an article concerning a plan to kill US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960. Richard Paul Pavlick planned a suicide bombing of the then President-Elect, however he was arrested before being able to carry out his plan.

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Today in History – 01 June 1926

Norma Jeane Mortenson (Norma Jeane Baker) was Born

On this day in 1926, Norma Jeane Mortenson was born (though raised as Norma Jeane Baker). Mortenson is best known as Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe gained her first film contract in 1946 and starred in such films as ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953),’ ‘The Seven Year Itch (1955)’ and ‘Some Like It Hot (1959).’

However, it is probably her relationship with President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, as well as her untimely death (with the many conspiracy theories that surround it) on the 5th August 1962 that are most prominent in her story.

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