At a relatively young age of forty-three, John Fitzgerald Kennedy took the oath of office as the president of the United States of America. Handsome, with a friendly face that projected a sense of assurance and with a beautiful wife by his side, JFK, as he was popularly known, captured the imagination of the American nation.
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He came across as a dedicated family man, a loyal husband, and a proud father. Prior to his inauguration in 1961, he had supposedly authored a bestselling book that won him the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize. His bravery and life-saving acts as a marine officer after his ship was sunk during the World War II, was an example of his courage, selfless attitude, and patriotism. In his brief, if not ephemeral, presidency, the United States’ economy grew considerably and the unemployment rate was at acceptable low single digit levels.
His inaugural speech was a study in optimism, and it stirred a sense of patriotism and hope in Americans, urging them to offer themselves for their country and not wait for their country to offer something to them. Nevertheless, President Kennedy fails the test of historical analysis, which is the ultimate test of a leader’s credibility.
However, beyond the rhetoric and carefully projected media image, laid a President J. F Kennedy that many Americans, who freely adored would find questionable, and even revolting. His career as a politician from his days as a congressman and senator indicate that, he was mostly absent from the house, gave very few speeches, and participated in few debates of national significance.
His alleged authorship of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, cannot be ascertained, and many critics and historians agree that his participation in the actual writing and research of the content of the book was negligible. Therefore, his claim of authorship and the subsequent awards given are invalid.
President Kennedy’s love of women was legendary. J.F Kennedy engaged in numerous extra-marital affairs that sometimes put the country’s security at risk. Some of the many women that had access to the president were hardly vetted by the Secret Service, which put the president at risk of blackmail. His narrow victory in the presidential election – with slightly over 100,000 votes, has been attributed to the help of some Mafia elements within the City of Chicago and the wider Illinois State.
President Kennedy’s dalliance with the Mafia, thus, exposed him to even greater risk of exploitation, and there is documented evidence of his secret communication with known mob Bosses such as Sam Giancana (Hersh 45). His appointment of his brother as Attorney General also had a hint of nepotism.
In light of the above evidence of President Kennedy’s lack of positive moral persuasion, he is a figure not to be revered as has happened so much after his death, but to be reviled. Many Americans, as shown in many polls, consistently regard President Kennedy as one of America’s greatest Presidents. Together with Abraham Lincoln, President Kennedy continuously polls as the greatest ever president.
As a symbol of youth and optimism throughout his presidency, his tragic assassination traumatized the American public that looked forward to many more years with the ‘perfect’ and picturesque Kennedy family at the White house. His death signalled a sad moment in the American history, with both supporters and opponents alike, wondering ‘what might have been’ had President Kennedy lived out his full term of office, and maybe even won a second term.
The national outpouring of sympathy was impartial, and the figure of his brave widow and children at his burial service has remained forever etched in the minds of most Americans. Waves of sympathy and condolences came not only from within America, but also worldwide. His death gave rise to many conspiracies concerning his killers, and to this very day, many theories abound regarding the motives behind his assassination.
In light of the circumstances surrounding his brief presidency and his sudden death in the hands of an assassin, (purportedly Lee Harvey Ostwald), the subsequent analysis of his presidency, character, and policies were bound to be heavily partial.
To paint the fallen president in a bad light would amount to re-opening the healing national wounds wrought by his sudden assassination. Very few publications focused on the multitude of President Kennedy’s moral and political transgressions while in office and prior as a senator and congressional representative.
Kitty Kelley, who is famed for digging up the secrets of famous personalities and prominent families, was one of the earliest writers to attempt to bring to light President Kennedy’s moral failings. She highlighted the case of Judith Exner, who had previously revealed her longstanding eighteen-month affair with President Kennedy in the years 1960-61.
As a Roman Catholic, President Kennedy is the only president in the US history to profess the Catholic faith. Although many viewed his religion as an indicator of his positive moral standing, he hardly practiced the teachings of his faith. Many of his actions were in complete contravention of the tenets of the catholic faith. His wife once remarked to a reporter that, it was ironic that, during the presidential campaigns, people were focusing on her husband’s faith yet he hardly practiced it (Massa 308).
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Painfully aware of her husband’s philandering ways, Jacqueline Kennedy, his wife, was left to uphold the image of the first family in a positive light. In his book, The Dark Side of Camelot, published in 1997, investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, depicts President Kennedy’s numerous adulterous relationships and portrays him as a serial womanizer (p18).
Hersh alleges that the President was even once married to Miss Durie Malcolm, and thus in marrying Jacqueline Kennedy, he had committed bigamy. According Hersh, although President Kennedy publicly portrayed himself as an ambassador of peace, his administration, in partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was guilty of assassinations of leaders of sovereign countries.
For instance, Hersh declares that the President was fully aware of the CIA’s plot to eliminate Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, and Lumumba’s eventual death can be traced to President Kennedy’s approval. The CIA was also intensively involved in the campaign to eliminate Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and both President Kennedy and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, were the prime movers of the idea.
President Kennedy was always portrayed as fit, and he appeared so, but according to Thomas C. Reeves, he was plagued by a multitude of diseases throughout his lifetime. In his 1991 book, A question of Character: A life of John F. Kennedy, Reeves portrays the president to have had two personalities: the one he projected in public, and a private one.
Publicly, the president came across as an affable and astute, but his private life was anything but what many people thought. Reeves asserts that, not only was President Kennedy a lazy person, but also was one of the most philandering presidents to have occupied the White House.
He asserts the notion that the president did not author his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, and was a beneficiary of the work of his subordinates. Reeves further states that, the 1960 presidential election was tainted by fraud facilitated by the Chicago mafia bosses (77). The office of the President of the United States is the highest political office of the strongest and mightiest nation on earth. In and of itself, the office demands a certain level of respect and reverence.
Therefore, the cavalier manner in which President Kennedy perceived the high office of the US Chief executive diminished the status of the office. His careless amoral acts, including his hedonistic pursuits inside and outside the walls of the oval office depict a President who did not take his role and title seriously.
According Victor Lasky, President Kennedy’s public profile deferred sharply with his private profile. In his book, J.F.K.: the Man and the Myth, Lasky expounds on the various malpractices by President Kennedy, and he is one of the earliest critics of the president having published his book in 1963. Lasky asserts that, the American public only saw the president as a capable and morally upright man due to efforts by his handlers to project this mythical image (27).
The true President Kennedy was reckless and opportunistic and continuously placed the American nation at a high security risk due to his careless dalliance with many call girls and mafia bosses. As the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in the early tensions that characterised the onset of the Cold War, President Kennedy’s flirtations with call girls, who did not receive security clearance from the Secret Service, could very well have exposed him to a situation of blackmail by elements from the Soviet Union.
In conclusion, President John F Kennedy’s legacy does not deserve reverence. As stated earlier, some positives came out of his brief stay as America’s chief executive. The economy grew by folds, and the levels of unemployment were low. President Kennedy’s impressive speech delivery skills inspired millions across the United States and the world. For a while, Americans begun to believe in the possibilities of a peaceful and prosperous nation envisioned by the nation’s founding fathers.
For instance, after President Kennedy signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the Soviet Union, the world was able to overcome the fears of a possible nuclear war. However, the above-mentioned positives count for little when juxtaposed against President Kennedy’s personal and political failures and transgressions. He fails the test of historical analysis, which is the ultimate test of a leader’s credibility.
His absenteeism from the Congress and the senate throughout his career as a legislator points to a politician not keen on his work. His philandering ways put the entire nation at risk and left his wife feeling ashamed and abandoned. He developed various diseases, as a result. His dalliance with the mafia denigrated the high office of the president.
Even though Kennedy may have made some modest accomplishments in his presidency, one cannot help but wonder how much more he could have achieved if he had forgone the many unnecessary pleasures he sought. His enormous potential was stifled by his own lifestyle choice, and the American people were denied the complete potential of his presidency, not by an assassin’s bullet, but by the president’s own carefree moral attitude and hedonistic pursuits.
Hersh, Seymour. The Dark Side of Camelot. London: Harper Collins, 1997.
Lasky, Victor. J.F.K: The Man and the Myth. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1963.
Massa, Mark S. “A Catholic for president?: John F. Kennedy and the `secular’ theology of the Houston speech, 1960.” Journal of Church & State 39.2 (1997): 307-331.
Reeves, Thomas C. A Question of Character: A Life of John F Kennedy. New York: Free Press, 1991.