Reconstructing Kennedy's World

November 21, 1993|By MICHAEL BARONE with KATIA HETTER

Thirty years after his death, John F. Kennedy is fading from focus.

Once, all Americans could remember where they were when they heard the awful news on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. But today the majority of Americans have no memory of 1963 at all. Kennedy remains the nation's most admired president, and the Kennedy family has remained at the center of politics like none other -- not the Adamses, not the Roosevelts. Yet, today, Kennedy's magic and the era he inhabited are difficult to recall.

Part of the difference between then and now involves the public's emotional connection to its leaders. In this embittered and cynical time, it is almost impossible to conjure the public infatuation with Kennedy's charm: No other political leader, not even Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, has been such a master of rapid repartee and self-deprecating humor.

How did he become a hero in World War II as captain of the PT-109? "They sank my boat." Was his multimillionaire father spending too much on his campaigns? "Don't buy a single vote more than necessary," he read from a mock telegram. "I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."

Also magic was his self-assurance. As a 43-year-old senator, he effortlessly gained the psychological upper hand over the vice president of the United States in televised debates. As president, Kennedy had an air of command that kept his job rating at an average of 71 percent.

He was an exotic figure to most Americans: a young veteran of World War II when the White House had been held for 28 years by men born in the last part of the 19th century; a speaker with a butterscotch-thick Boston accent, thrusting his hands in his suit pockets like an English lord in a country whose favorite entertainment at the time was television Westerns; a Roman Catholic in a nation over two-thirds non-Catholic.

Today, it is not just Kennedy but the America that elected and then mourned him that is unfamiliar. Historian Daniel Boorstin's first book, "The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson," explained the third president by trying to "recapture" a vanished "Jeffersonian world of ideas."

Three decades later, Kennedy's America is equally distant. And it is "lost" to us in some measure because of the changes that took place as a result of the way he was elected, the way he governed and the way he died.

The Religion Issue

For starters, the social divisions in the country were differently arrayed in many respects than they are now. Kennedy's Catholicism was a dominant issue in his campaign.

Catholic Americans in 1960 lived almost in a nation apart. The descendants of Irish, German, Italian and Polish immigrants were still concentrated in industrial cities.

In this Catholic America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was an

aristocrat, grandson of the mayor of Boston, son of one of the richest Catholics in America. In 1916, the year before JFK was born, his grandfather, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, ran for senator against the Yankee Protestant Henry Cabot Lodge and lost. Exit polls, had they existed, surely would have shown 80 percent of Catholics for Fitzgerald and 70 percent of Protestants for Lodge.

Thirty-six years later, when Honey Fitz's grandson John Kennedy ran for the Senate, not much had changed. The Catholic-Protestant split was still strong, though a more shrewd campaign and a good portion of Joseph Kennedy's money helped JFK beat Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

"This country is not a private preserve for Protestants," Joseph Kennedy told his son John in 1956. "There's a whole new generation out there, and it's filled with the sons and daughters of immigrants, and those people are going to be mighty proud that one of their own is running for president. And that pride will be your spur, it will give your campaign an intensity we've never seen in public life."

And so it did. Kennedy's support from Catholics made him a front-runner in polls before he declared. On the campaign trail, he was cheered by nuns and Catholic schoolchildren and greeted by heavily Catholic crowds that waited hours to throng him, like one in Waterbury, Conn., that waited until 3 o'clock in the morning.

Suspicions among Protestants remained. Kennedy had to win primaries in mostly Protestant Wisconsin and almost entirely Protestant West Virginia before the big-city bosses -- almost all of them Catholic -- would back him.

In the fall, popular Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale questioned the loyalty of Catholics. In Houston, Kennedy faced down 300 Protestant ministers and assured them he would resign the presidency if he found any conflict between his public duties and religious faith.

But religion was still a critical issue. Bare majorities of Protestants and voters over 50 said they were willing to vote for a Catholic. Religious fears as well as enthusiasms swelled 1960 voter turnout to the highest levels since 1908, 64 percent of those eligible, compared with 55 percent in 1992. Kennedy won 78 percent of Catholics' votes but only 38 percent of Protestants'.

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