John F. Kennedy was the Steve McQueen of presidents. His family were the reality stars before the Kardashians.
He would have turned 100 years old today. But he’s forever frozen in time as the vibrant, handsome president of the early 60s.
Ever since I was a kid, the presidency has fascinated me and JFK has been part of that fasciation. He’s often considered to be one of our ten best presidents. He continues to have one of the highest favorability ratings among former presidents. Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek adds the observation that this isn’t what we see of other presidents who served short terms. And Kennedy did have a short term: the sixth shortest in American history when he was assassinated 1,037 days into his presidency.
There is an immortal quality to Kennedy.
I think of recent presidents. Ronald Reagan had to leave the public eye after his presidency as the ravages of alzheimer’s were taking their toll. Former president George H.W. Bush has been in and out of the hospital in recent years. For other presidents who have been blessed with long life, we also see the ravages of age and the frailty of life in these men.
But with Kennedy, that’s not the case. We never saw his hair going gray or growing old. Kennedy had been the first president to master television. He was careful with his image, was brilliant at marketing and with photo ops. And it’s in those images and videos that Kennedy lives on. Frozen in time.
He wasn’t perfect. He was a serial adulterer. While serving as president, he never saw the passage of any of his major domestic policies. He had scandals, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unmitigated disaster in a botched assassination attempt on Fidel Castro. And yet his legacy endures.
I think part of it is in the unfinished business of his presidency. Knowing all of the upheavals that happened during the 1960s, I think there’s a sort of previsionist with Kennedy that things would have been different had he lived. I think we do that whenever people die before their time. Especially people of such immense prominence. Especially in eras that left much to be desired. They become mythologized. We see what might of been, and perhaps project omniscience onto someone like Kennedy – knowing what we know now about the world – and think that he would have done better at the time.
In an office that has been most often held by stodgy older men. Lifelong politicians who had sold their souls (certainly not saying Kennedy is above reproach in that respect) and paid their dues, Kennedy is forever young.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.