JFK’s image shines on despite contradictions

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In this Aug. 7, 1960 file photo, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kennedy and wife Jacqueline sit in their sailboat in Hyannis Port, Mass. (AP Photo)

Kennedy, born in 1917, was the second son, and one of nine children, of business tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy. No self-made man put greater pressure on his children than did the elder Kennedy. When first son Joseph Jr. was killed during World War II, Jack became the designated heir. Himself a Navy veteran and survivor of a collision with a Japanese destroyer, he would write to his friend Paul Fay that, once the war was over, “I’ll be back here with Dad trying to parlay a lost PT boat and a bad back into a political advantage.”

Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, at age 29, was a senator by age 35 and was soon being mentioned as a candidate for national office.

“From the time Jack first ran for Congress, his father had taught him everything from wearing a suit and the best way to cut his hair, how to appear youthful and wise and serious at the same time,” says David Nasaw, whose biography of Joseph P. Kennedy came out last year. Still, Nasaw described JFK’s relationship with his father as a “partnership,” in which he didn’t hesitate to differ from the elder Kennedy.

JFK was a public figure years before he ran for office. “Why England Slept,” released in 1940, was a book-length edition of a thesis he wrote at Harvard about the British in the years before World War II. An introduction was provided by one of the country’s foremost image makers, Time magazine publisher Henry R. Luce. “You would be surprised how a book that really makes the grade with high-class people stands you in good stead for years to come,” Joseph Kennedy had advised his sons.

The JFK narrative was well in place for his presidential run in 1960: a handsome, witty and athletic World War II hero and family man who vowed to revitalize the country, which for eight years had been presided over by the grandfatherly Eisenhower.

The multimedia story began in childhood with newsreels and newspaper coverage of the smiling Kennedy brood, and it continued with books, photographs, movies and finally television — notably the telegenic JFK’s presidential debates with Republican Richard Nixon.

Questions about the Kennedy image were also in place.

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