More than most American presidents, it is hard to draw a line between John F. Kennedy in his roles as a private individual and as a politician. Multiple reasons exist for this. Virtually his entire family was intimately involved in politics: his grandfather, father and brothers. Furthermore, much of Kennedy’s popularity was rooted in his charisma, his clean-cut image, and that of his young family. His campaigning was based around appealing directly to the people, utilising his strengths on television and in public. As such, perceptions of the short-lived president verged on a cult of personality, fuelled by his early death.
However it is wrong to judge any public figure on style over substance, and this blurring of the public relations and governance aspects of his presidency must be untangled in order to assess whether JFK’s private character influenced his performance as president. The circumstances of Kennedy’s death make judgement hard. As Ted Sorensen argued, it would ‘affect the judgement of historians, and the danger is that it will relegate his greatness to legend.’ Indeed, it has rendered JFK an almost mythical figure, leading to a backlash by revisionists challenging this golden image.
I will assess how much Kennedy’s character impacted on his presidency by considering various aspects of his personality; especially his closeness to his family and his impulsiveness. I believe that while the most fixated-upon aspect of Kennedy’s private life- his womanising- is overplayed in assessing his presidency, in other respects he blurred the lines of private life and public office to a compromising extent. That said, on other occasions, Kennedy’s unique character- and brilliance- was used to his country’s benefit.
Perhaps most important is the central role members of the close-knit Kennedy family played in Jack’s administration. The role of his father, Joseph, was often criticised; his wealth funded JFK’s election, and Jack was often seen to be hopelessly in his thrall. Sorensen recounts being told by an attorney that ‘Jack Kennedy wouldn’t hire anyone Joe Kennedy wouldn’t tell him to hire.’ However, more alarming may be the role of Jack’s younger brother, Robert. Bobby ran the 1960 campaign and was Jack’s first port-of-call in difficult situations. Robert Dallek recounts then-Governor of Connecticut Abraham Ribicoff remarking: ‘Every time you face a crisis, you automatically turn to Bobby… you’re not going to be able to be President without using Bobby all the time.’ While some argue that Bobby was essential in bringing the best out of his brother- ‘the sleepless watchman on the rampart’, who allowed Jack mastery of the presidency day and night, to Richard Mahoney- introducing a close relationship into the political sphere invariably creates conflicts of interest. Even before Bobby’s appointment as Attorney General was official, the New York Times opposed it vigorously as the politicisation of a nonpartisan office. The brothers’ solution to the charge of nepotism was, astonishingly, to suggest Joe Kennedy had forced the appointment on Jack.
More than just juggling supposed political neutrality with fraternal loyalty, Bobby found himself serving three incompatible roles, argued Seymour Hersh: ‘as guardian of the nation’s laws, as his brother’s secret operative in foreign crises, and as personal watchdog for a brother who reveled in personal excess and recklessness.’ The ambiguity of these roles is difficult to reconcile with the Constitution’s Separation of Powers. It would be naïve, however, to think any president would not be influenced by family members, even if they did not hold government posts.
That said, the extent to which Bobby became involved in foreign policy was extraordinary. The Bay of Pigs fiasco is a case in point. Bobby was involved at every level; he gave advice, he took charge in silencing internal criticism, he vociferously laid the blame for the misadventure at the door of the military in meetings with the NSC, and he was appointed to the commission of inquiry in the aftermath. Even JFK associate Arthur Schlesinger- whose biography verges on the hagiographic- suggests that Bobby’s presence contributed to the commission having ‘construed its mandate narrowly, concentrating on dissecting the military operation and on thinking up a new inter-departmental agency to coordinate future Cold War ventures.’ That is to say, the blame was kept well away from the administration.
Furthermore, both Dallek and Hersh recount instances of Bobby meeting with members of the press on multiple occasions to head off potential stories about the president’s extramarital affairs. Here, above all, JFK’s personal life was allowed to undermine the administration’s legitimacy. Bobby was expected to combine an impartial post, with the highly political role of managing the press, and to provide advice on complex military operations without any experience or qualification. Not only was this contrary to moral and democratic principle, but it had damning repercussions in incidents like the Bay of Pigs.
Having considered JFK’s relationship to his family, we must turn to another aspect of his persona attacked by critics: the tendency to ‘revel in personal excess and recklessness’. First we might consider the factors that formed the character of a man who always needed to excel: the premature death of his brother Joseph Jr., the back injury sustained in college that caused him pain his whole life, the Addison’s Disease that threatened his life repeatedly. This was a man who had constantly lived with the threat of death, and who had to live up to the enormous ambitions of a father who already had boundless wealth and influence. Naturally, he developed a huge lust for life: in terms of the career ambition that saw him become the youngest man to assume the presidency, in terms of his relentless libido, and perhaps a dangerous recklessness in office.
It is necessary to consider Kennedy’s storied sex life, given how much attention is devoted to it. Certainly his prolific womanising seems hypocritical given the emphasis placed on his family’s image. However, we should not turn a moral judgement on Kennedy’s person into a judgement on his competence as president. Until much later, politicians’ sex lives were generally overlooked by journalists, who had greater regard for individuals’ privacy. Even Dallek, who rejects the Sorensen/ Schlesinger approach of simply denying the extent of his promiscuity, concludes that ‘Kennedy’s dalliances were no impediment to his being an effective president.’ This leaves only the most lurid claims casting doubts about Kennedy’s fitness for office.
Most prominent is his affair with Judith Campbell Exner, who was simultaneously involved with Mafia leader Sam Giancana. This can at best be seen as an indictment on JFK’s character which, in John Davis’ words, ‘thrived on danger, risk and intrigue.’ At worst, more profound links have been alleged, between Kennedy and organised crime (extending to the claim that the Mafia ‘stole’ the 1960 election) via Exner and Giancana. However, the evidence for this is largely based in Campbell’s own testimony, in lucrative memoirs fourteen years after JFK’s death, and as such should be treated sceptically, however much they have been recycled by revisionists. To take Kennedy’s promiscuity as anything more than an indication of dubious judgement and impulsiveness is rash.
An area where Kennedy’s impulsive nature was genuinely damaging comes when we look again to the Bay of Pigs. We should note Jackie Kennedy’s words in her famous ‘Camelot’ interview in Life magazine: ‘You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table… for Jack, history was full of heroes.’ It is easy to see parallels in Dallek’s description of JFK’s decision to attempt the invasion of Cuba, of his fixation with ‘the idea of patriotic men prepared to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their country.’ Here was the president, sheltered from the real world by childhood illness and enormous privilege, obsessed with heroism, acting on these same instincts to authorise an operation that drove Castro’s Cuba into the tight embrace of the USSR and precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is this risk-taking, out-of-touch side of Kennedy that led Richard Walton to dub him ‘the most dangerous cold-warrior we have seen since the end of World War II’. Similarly, this showcases the tendencies that led Kennedy to neglect the input of his cabinet and of experts, in favour of excessive faith in himself and his inner circle. Dallek notes that ‘though he had appointed the most talented people he could find to his cabinet… he had made almost no use of cabinet meetings in deciding major questions.’
However, in his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy demonstrated an ability to rise above this rash risk-taking. This time he opted to lean heavily on the advice of others: this was an instance where Kennedy really did choose to govern by committee. Furthermore, rather than the gung-ho heroics that had worsened the Cuba situation so much the year before, he opted for cooperation with the USSR.This newfound caution in fact incurred the ire of the arch-hawk Dean Acheson, who complained the ExCom sessions were ‘repetitive, leaderless and a waste of time.’ It seems that Kennedy learned his lesson, becoming ‘an effective partner in negotiations with Khrushchev and the Soviets… to avoid a nuclear holocaust’, an act of diplomatic responsibility that Dallek credits with having ‘opened the way to a notable test ban treaty… and increased confidence in the possibility of a Soviet-American détente.’
For Thomas Reeves, usually one of Kennedy’s fiercest critics, this demonstrated his finest traits: a sense of ‘a larger moral purpose’ and a ‘growing maturity’ manifest in ‘the ability to seek counsel, make decisions, and maintain reasonable control of an enormously complex crisis.’ Michael Dobbs chalks this down to Kennedy possessing ‘an instinctive approach for the chaotic forces of history’, understanding that the peril lay not in the grand schemes of the men who in theory held power, but in the rash judgements of what Jackie Kennedy termed ‘little men’- the threat that one error by an American U2 pilot or a Russian submarine captain could force their hand and precipitate nuclear war.
This commitment to reasoning his way through the crisis, and clear understanding of history in terms of its randomness and unpredictability, was central to JFK’s approach. Numerous sources cite Kennedy’s references, for instance, to the Guns of August, an account of the outbreak of WWI through ‘blunders and miscalculations’. This is quite the opposite to the impulsive JFK of the Bay of Pigs; here we see Kennedy, the Harvard student of international affairs, the historian. Not only that, we see a man capable of acknowledging his errors and learning from them.
Famously, his response to the Bay of Pigs’ failure was to ask repeatedly ‘how could I have been so stupid?’ This shows his ability to rise above his personal shortcomings in serving America’s interests, but also equally highlights another aspect of his character that served him well as president. Here, we also see the futility of the attempt to separate the private individual and the statesman clearest; even away from the deliberate manipulation of his private life for political means, John Kennedy was a unique man, and both his brilliance and flaws cannot be extricated from his decision making.
We are left with a complex image of Kennedy the man, and the president. The most-discussed subject, his sex life, had little bearing on his presidency. However, his character as a whole- the impulsive recklessness fuelled by his illness and need to live life to the full, the arrogance coming with his easy success and sheltered rich upbringing, the brilliant analytical mind, and that reliance on his family-is inextricable from the key decisions of his presidency, good and bad. If one notes that almost half of ExCom were prepared to bomb the Cuban missile sites in October 1962, and likely follow through with the invasion of the island, it is easy to see how, at critical historical flashpoints, and with such unique characters, individual personality can be everything. Kennedy’s was simply so big that it dominated every aspect of his presidency.