The Kennedy Legacy

JFK1963 (7)

November 22nd marked the 50th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, which has left a lasting mark upon American politics and spawned a collection of books that could quite easily fill any library. As some notable authors have written – including the Executive Editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson – people are interested in the assassination of the President, but what about the man behind the myth?

Kennedy was a man who preferred small gatherings when discussing political strategy or issues. He was easily bored, used legal pads to jot down items of importance and gave impassioned pleas about how to win.

Almost a year before the Presidential election of 1960, and before he had even clinched the nomination of his party, an important step to being elected, Kennedy – dressed in a sports jacket, slacks and loafers – spelled out his winning strategy to some of his closet advisors. He pulled out a map of the US, paused every now and then for brief observations and went on for several hours.

This was very much the Kennedy style; calm, clear, precise, well-read, educated, and articulate. Forget about the barrage of books and rumours of sexual escapades in the White House, the man had substance and style.

Those who worked closely with him remarked upon his character. “I came to marvel at his ability to look at his own strengths and weaknesses,” said Theodore C. Sorensen (a special assistant to Kennedy) in his biography of the President titled simply Kennedy. Sorensen was one of the closet aides to Kennedy. As his Chief Speech Writer and Special Assistant, he would be influential on delivering the Kennedy voice to millions of Americans.

Kennedy had “so quietly penetrated individual lives; no one realised how much he had changed things until his time was over,” said Arthur M. Schlesinger (another special assistant to the President) in his Pulitzer Prize winning book A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in The White House.

Kennedy’s political career began in 1946 when he ran for Congress and held the seat for six years, followed closely by a Senate seat, then President. His presidency started in an era of heightened anxiety over communism and the ongoing threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

There was the Bay of Pigs in 1961, an aborted attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, who had risen to power in the bid to bring revolution. The CIA had been involved in arming and prepping Cuban commandos. When it became clear the plan needed American military assistance, despite Kennedy’s many refusals, he remarked “They were sure I’d give into them, well they had me figured all wrong.”

There was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which led Kennedy to threaten military force if Soviet missiles were not removed from Cuba.

Kennedy would turn to a more domestic agenda in 1963, ploughing ahead to pass his Civil Rights legislation, which had been stuck in congress from the moment he drafted the bill in 1961 until his death.

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. indicated to Kennedy that he had wished to march on Washington. Kennedy was reluctant for the march, not because he didn’t firmly believe in civil rights, but because he feared violence on the streets of the nation’s capital. Turning to an aide he said “They’re going to shit all over the Washington Monument.” On the day of the March, Kennedy had the windows in the White House opened so he could hear King’s speech and see the millions of people who turned out. He watched the speech on a small black and white TV and remarked “Jesus Christ, that’s a terrific speech.”

“JFK was a possibility that got thwarted,” said Fr. Thomas Murphy an Associate Professor of History at Seattle University. “His story will always fascinate Americans.

If you look at other Presidents who died in office, especially Lincoln and FDR, they died at moments of great accomplishment – their deaths did not thwart their legacies.”

By late autumn of 1963, he had signalled a willingness to engage with the Soviet Union on a joint manned space mission, he had worked back channels to get Castro on a more peaceful path, he said he wanted out of Vietnam and expressed his willingness to run and win in the upcoming 1964 election, which is why he decided to travel to Dallas. The rest is as they say history.

Above: President Kennedy at Dublin Airport at the beginning of his Irish visit.
Photo by Gerry O’Dea.

Memories of JFK’s visit to Ireland

“My mother was expecting the birth of my sister Mary, so she sent me into town to Clerys to get some nappies. There was a big crowd on O’Connell Street and when I asked what was going on they said that Kennedy would be passing by soon. I climbed up onto one of the large window ledges of Clerys to get a good view. Kennedy’s car came along but was gone in a flash. I glimpsed him for a few seconds as he waved to the crowd. So a simple errand into town resulted in me witnessing a historic occasion. My sister was born on the 27th of June and that day Kennedy’s helicopter flew over our house on his way to Wexford.”
George Curry from Pigeon House Road, Ringsend now living in New Zealand.

“All I remember is his teeth, he had these beautiful white teeth and brown skin; he looked like somebody from the movies, a Hollywood star if you will. I was standing right next to him in the Phoenix Park when his car turned and he waved. It was a pretty amazing moment. A few months later, while working for the Corporation, I found out he had been killed. Everyone came to our house because we had the only TV on the road at the time.”
Billy Cahill from Ballyfermot, Dublin.

“It was such a wonderful time for a 16 year old in Dublin, the whole thing was like magic. We were so innocent. This great man, tanned, tall, beautiful white teeth, standing up at the back of the car waving to everyone, beautiful wife standing beside him (we had no knowledge at that time of his history). It was like a dream come true for a 16 year old. The town was crowded, you couldn’t get a place to stand and everyone just wanted to be part of this great day. I can remember the sun shining and we cheered and waved as if he saw each and every one of us. He brought a breath of fresh air to a somewhat drab existence of Dublin in 1963.”
Una Waldron from Skerries.

“It was a pretty cloudy day, I was only 16 and on my way to a dance when I’d seen the crowds gather to welcome the President. I had seen his black car and he was standing as he turned onto O’Connell Street waving. He had the best-looking teeth I’ve ever seen in a man. A few months later I was on my way to a dance – again – and my Dad said ‘You won’t be going anywhere, the President was killed.’ I have never seen so many people cry in all my life.”
Mary Keeley, Ballyfermot Dublin.

“I saw him and I nearly didn’t see him. We lived in Limerick at the time and it was Saturday and the milkman called for his weekly payment and asked, ‘why aren’t you out at the racecourse, President Kennedy will be there?’ I banged the door in the poor man’s face, shouting at my husband and young children to get into the car, ‘we’re off to see the President.’ We got there and joined the throng. When I saw him I just gazed because I had never seen anyone like him before. Tall and tanned, with a white, flashing smile and suddenly we parted like Moses parted the sea, and he walked up the steps to a platform. Then he spoke in his Boston accent telling us with a wide smile that he didn’t think he’d make it because he didn’t think he’d survive the Dublin traffic. We laughed. When his speech ended he came down amongst us and a thousand hands stretched out and mine was amongst them. He didn’t shake it, but his warm brown hand brushed off it.”
Kathleen O’Connor, Glenageary, Co. Dublin.

By Liam Cahill