Andrew Cohen is the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History, and a consulting producer on Kennedy, a docuseries on The History Channel.
In early 1963, Phil Graham, the celebrated publisher of The Washington Post, was having a nervous breakdown. In public, he became erratic, shrill, unhinged. In private, too.
He did not spare his friend, Jack Kennedy. “Do you know who you are talking to?” Graham barked into the telephone. Kennedy replied, “I know I’m not talking to the Phil Graham I have so much admiration for.”
Consider two things here. One is how the 35th president of the United States respected Graham’s dignity. Like Abraham Lincoln, Kennedy had forbearance, patience and empathy for friends as well as antagonists.
The other is how Kennedy could detach one Phil Graham from another. We might do the same as we remember Kennedy 60 years after his assassination, reconciling the myth of 1963 with the man of 2023.
Time and events help. Vietnam, Watergate, the end of the Cold War, the rights revolution, the internet – the American psyche is not what it was in 1963. Today, it is cynical, chastened, vulgar, wary and agitated. Many distrust the media, the military, medicine, religion, politicians, elections and democracy itself. All had played a role in the making of President Kennedy.
Over the last six decades, we have come to view the legacy of JFK cyclically. Indeed, the farther we get the more we see, and we now see Kennedy more clearly in the light of a world shaped by Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
In the immediate aftermath of Nov. 22, 1963, however, we saw only Camelot, Jackie Kennedy’s artful confection. It was so much a byword for Kennedy’s shimmering “thousand days” that Charles Ritchie, the Canadian diplomat, could confidently insert “Camelot” into his published diary from Washington in 1983, even though the word did not appear in his original entry in 1963.
For awhile, Kennedy was the martyred magician. By the 1970s, though, the narrative turned harsh: Kennedy became the unreconstructed cold warrior of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. At home, he was impassive on civil rights.
The revisionists ruled in the following decades, from the cerebral Garry Wills to the perfervid Seymour Hersh. The indictments: As a senator, JFK didn’t vote to censure Joseph McCarthy. He didn’t acknowledge his speechwriter’s help in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. He lied about his health. He stole the election of 1960. He was a reckless philanderer. When he uttered “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he was a jelly donut. Oh, lord.
It was open season on Kennedy into the 1990s. Eventually, we learned to see JFK without tears, then without leers. Credit Donald Trump – whose chaotic, inept presidency has scrambled historical judgment – but not him alone. If Kennedy was unfaithful, so were other presidents. If Kennedy was in ill health, he still worked breakneck days. If Profiles in Courage wasn’t all his, his literary life surely was; he loved language, quoted poetry, cited history, devoured books. His friends were writers.
As always with leaders, we learned in time, there is more than one truth. Kennedy’s emerged more favourably in declassified documents, transcripts, audio recordings, memoirs and diaries. History turned sympathetic.
Our contemporary Kennedy is flawed but creative and courageous. He formed the Peace Corps and sent young Americans out into the world. He greatly expanded the space program and sent them to the moon. He ran the first modern presidential campaign, mastering television. Today he’d navigate cyberspace as ably as he did outer space.
No longer the brinksman at Cuba, he was the conciliator who defied the hawks to avoid Armageddon, and the pragmatist who planned to withdraw from Vietnam. By 1963, he wanted less to win the Cold War than to end it. It produced the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the first arms control of its kind.
Far from indifferent on civil rights, Kennedy made it a moral question. He introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1963, knowing it would cost him the South. His search for peace and freedom in his last months, he allowed, was why he was president.
No, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is not the saint of 1963. His season was too short for unalloyed greatness. Still, he led a lyrical life and was a feverish, consequential president who enjoyed a few good innings in a gentler game – the fallen man we have so much admiration for, then and now.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said President John F. Kennedy launched the U.S. space program. He greatly expanded the program created under President Dwight Eisenhower. This version has been updated.