Nobody could have predicted how long former President John F. Kennedy would have lived had he not been assassinated in 1963 at the age of 46.
But it doesn’t change that Monday, May 29, would have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday and that his presidency set a tone for presidents to come.
From his famous query about what we can do for our country, to a sense of style that flew directly in the face of those possessed by older, more classic-looking presidents, a new culture was ushered in when John F. Kennedy entered the White House.
“For many of us, it is as stark a measure of the passage of time as any,” journalist Jack Greenfield told PBS.
“Could this symbol of a new generation really have been born a hundred years ago? Could he really be dead for 54 years…eight years longer than he lived? From a-half-century’s distance, we have a clearer understanding of why his presence was so arresting: the handsome war hero with a radiant wife and young children who helped define him.”
Kennedy, at 43, came in as the youngest president ever elected, taking office after the oldest in history at the time as 62-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower represented days of old for most Americans. It was the 1960s, the early part of the decade, that still owns the Vietnam War, civil rights, and a culture that countered everything of Ike’s generation. But, that’s not to say Kennedy had it easy. The flashy new leader of the free world also came at a time when perceived tensions with the Soviet Union were at an all-time high.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, the 13-day standoff with the Soviets in 1962, was heard around the world as something many thought would end the Cold War when the Kennedy White House averted a nuclear conflict capable of decimating most of North America.
Less than a year earlier, Kennedy authorized the bungled attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. As history would show, the Cold War was far from over, Kennedy’s foreign policy was a thinking man’s game that resulted in the Peace Corps, Alliance for Progress, and a 70-percent approval rating.
“He was at first a reluctant civil-rights warrior,” Greenfield said.
“But in the last year of his life he committed to a landmark bill that banned racial discrimination in public places and the workplace, though this would have jeopardized his re-election.”
Of course, there would be no re-election. The president’s overall impression remained, and decades after he died, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government has continued to decrease. Even his own death has spawned conspiracies far and wide. Books, films, and a plethora of other works have yet to accept that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy dead on November 22, 1963 from a sixth-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository.
Meanwhile, before that fateful day in Dallas, John F. Kennedy and his first lady, Jacqueline, were the pillars of fashion and United States royalty if there ever has been a pristine American bloodline. “Camelot,” we called it–everything Kennedy exuded class, charm, and fantasy beyond the idea of the American Dream. Kennedy’s looks rivaled that in seen Hollywood, and suddenly the President of the United States was not only the commander-in-chief but a celebrity, a benchmark of hip and setter of trends.
From coast-to-coast, quandaries of pairing a hopsack blazer with the correct trousers, or wearing the the right shoes with a solid gray worsted suit were solved by turning to images of John F. Kennedy, many suddenly moving as television cameras followed him wherever he went.
Kennedy’s record for passing legislation left something to be desired. Yet even modern Republicans agree that JFK’s legacy transcended policy and the leadership of his predecessors.
Former White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan Ken Duberstein called Kennedy an inspiration for generations of public servants, now doing that they can to “help America remain that shining city on a hill.”
[Featured Image by Keystone/Getty Images]