The election of JFK, 50 years later

Kelly Writers House John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961 (top); with Jacqueline Kennedy at the Inaugural Ball (middle); delivering the American University Commencement address on June 10, 1963.

Fifty years ago this month, a junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts became the youngest person ever elected to the presidency and the second-youngest to hold the job.

John F. Kennedy’s presidency was bookended by a narrow victory in 1960 over then-Vice President Richard Nixon (featuring the first televised debates) and his tragic assassination in November of 1963. Today, Kennedy remains one of the most admired and beloved presidents in history, coming in third on a 2007 Gallup Poll list behind Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

But why is Kennedy still so admired half a century after his election?

The answer, says Bruce Kuklick, professor of American history in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, may have more to do with the former president’s tragic death than with his accomplishments while in office.

“Kennedy is a much less prepossessing figure as a candidate, and even as a president in his first couple of years, than he was after his death,” Kuklick explains. “What’s really amazing here is that [President Dwight] Eisenhower, who was a very successful politician, wasn’t able to generate enough support to get his successor in office. ... So Kennedy wiggles into the office, I would say not because of his own strength, but because of the weakness of the opposition.”

When Kennedy was assassinated, just three years after his election, it marked for some the beginning of the time when everything changed in America. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protesters became involved in violent confrontations with police. In the 1960s, the war in Vietnam escalated, setting off a series of increasingly larger anti-war protests stateside. In 1968, Kennedy’s brother, Robert, and civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated. “All of those things are associated I think wrongly with the Kennedy assassination—that is to say, people think, ‘If only Kennedy had lived, none of these things would have happened,’” says Kuklick. “So the Kennedy assassination comes to mark, in a way, the end of modern American innocence and because of that, his ascent to power is then crucial.”

Part of this ascent to power involves Kennedy’s skills as a persuasive and gifted orator. Kuklick says evidence of this surfaced during the campaign, certainly during the televised debates, and in two notable speeches from 1963—one delivered at the Berlin Wall and another on nuclear disarmament at American University’s Commencement ceremony. “But the first instance when you see it when he’s president is in the inaugural address, which really is a pretty special piece of work,” says Kuklick, who has taught courses on American political, diplomatic and intellectual history. “The standard complaint is that all Kennedy offered was words, that the actual achievements were minimal, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But an enormous part of the job, it seems to me, is the ability of the president to lead a national and an international audience in some way. It’s a talent which is more than just being able to give a terrific speech. You have to calibrate when and where you’re going to do it.”

The man most famous for crafting the president’s words, Ted Sorensen, drew on the Bible, the Gettysburg Address and the words of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill for Kennedy’s inaugural address, according to his Oct. 31 New York Times obituary. This speech is perhaps best known for its elegant turns-of-phrase about service and a new generation in the United States: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

But what strikes Kuklick about Kennedy’s inaugural address is the speech’s Cold War context.

“There’s an assertion of American rights and power in the middle of the Cold War so that the struggle against the Soviet Union is very paramount, but at the same time, there’s this notion that the United States has other missions, too, and these missions have to do with the gradual amelioration of international human problems,” he explains.

By 1963, however, the rhetoric had changed. In his American University speech, which followed the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy attempted to sell the American people on an arms agreement with the Russians.

[Kennedy] says, ‘In the final analysis, we all inhabit the same small planet, we all breathe the same air, we cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.’ And it’s spectacular,” says Kuklick. “This overture by Kennedy to say, ‘Let’s do something about this’ meets with a very positive response from the Russians. It’s Sorensen’s words and Kennedy’s ability as a public speaker that really did the trick.”

Fifty years from now, Americans may remember Kennedy’s presidency as a special time in the country’s history. “I think that the assassination combined with [Kennedy’s] rhetorical powers will give him maybe a false place in American history as displaying this great moment of hope and a moment at which people could think that rational debate might actually have successful fruition,” says Kuklick. “This represented a time when we could put intelligence to work and somehow work things out in a reasonable way. I think that’s what the Kennedy legacy is and I think it’s likely to remain that way.”

Originally published on November 11, 2010