Not long ago, I was in Dallas on business. I made the requisite pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza and viewed the world’s most infamous grassy knoll, but I also discovered one of the more striking monuments among the thousands to John F. Kennedy. The Sixth Floor Museum is housed in the building that was once the Texas School Book Depository. You climb the stairs, turn a corner, and are faced with the open window through which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle at Kennedy’s motorcade on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, with world-shattering consequences. The museum plays host to around 400,000 people a year, and their comments in the visitors’ book — “Our greatest President”; “Oh how we miss him!”; “A beacon of hope, cruelly extinguished” — are ample evidence that, more than half a century on, the Kennedy mystique has only deepened and intensified.
On paper there seems scant reason for this enduring hagiography. After all, Kennedy spent less than three years in the White House. His first year was a disaster, by anyone’s standards. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba collapsed in farce; he was humiliated by the pugnacious Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at their 1961 summit; and most of his legislative proposals were nixed by a hostile Congress.
But the Kennedy myth has less to do with the quotidian business of getting bills passed and more to do with the way he came to embody those ideals — purpose, hope, vigour, strength, drive — that America has always held dear. In this, history was on his side. He was the youngest man ever elected to the presidency, at the age of 43, succeeding Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the eldest at 71. He was the first president born in the 20th century and the first veteran of world war II (in which he’d commanded a PT boat) to win the White House, thus symbolising a new generation and its coming-of-age. And, not incidentally, he projected an image of youthful elan that was perfectly timed for the nascent televisual age. Anyone who studies the grainy footage of him in full declamatory meet-and-greet mode is sure to be struck by his charismatic presence and the ringing elegance of his oratory. His celebrated inaugural address was stuffed with phrases that seemed formulated to be carved in stone, as many of them subsequently were. For one of the most famous, he simply lifted a motto from his prep-school days, substituting “your country” in place of “Choate”: thus, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”. A command that propelled legions of Americans into teaching, government service, or the Peace Corps and its ilk, was coined.