Who was the real JFK?

Exploring the public face and hidden scandals of the still-popular US president, John F. Kennedy.


Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John F. Kennedy’s court historian, wrote that JFK’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis was “so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world.” This sycophantic tone, and an unwillingness to address the 35th President’s more illicit endeavours, characterises the sympathetic ‘Camelot’ school of Kennedy historians. More recent dispassionate criticism of Kennedy has highlighted revelations of serial adultery, drug use and political malfeasance to counter this rose-tinted view. Yesterday, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the unprecedented disparity between his image and conduct continues to divide historians and define his presidency.

In 2008 Barack Obama, the most captivating American politician of his generation, was lifted to the Presidency on an intoxicating mixture of rhetoric and promise. However, in terms of public infatuation even he falls short of the standard set by JFK. In the 1960 presidential election JFK overcame anti-Catholic prejudice by courting the media and impressing upon the American people an image of intellectual authority, political pragmatism and genuine glamour, which grew stronger throughout his presidency and still holds the attention of contemporary America.

As a Pulitzer-prize winning author with Profiles in Courage and regular contributor to the national press he had strong but exaggerated literary credentials. It is widely acknowledged that much of the credit for writing Profiles in Courage should go to JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorenson. As a war hero – decorated with the Purple Heart as commander of Pt-109 – he commanded respect. Although a genuine act of bravery, this event was heavily exploited: JFK’s father pressured The New Yorker into doing a feature on the incident.

JFK’s marriage to the attractive, urbane and multi-lingual Jacqueline Bouvier enhanced his natural glamour, and their children helped project the impression that he was a devoted family man. However, today it is common knowledge that he was a serial adulterer. Although the infamy of his promiscuity is perhaps unjustified – Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt were also prolific adulterers – it certainly runs in the face of his wholesome family image. Moreover, his affair with Judith Campbell provokes questions about mob ties – she was involved with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana at the same time. Did JFK use the mob to rig elections? Was he aware of their collaboration with the FBI in assassination attempts on Fidel Castro?

When it comes to political action, JFK has been widely lauded for de-escalating the Cuban Missile Crisis and introducing civil rights legislation. The sympathetic line on the former is that JFK faced down the Soviet Union and his own hawkish military advisers, calmly negotiating his way out of the hottest period of the Cold War. On the latter, it is said that his June 11 address reflected a sincere empathy with black America, and that he was willing to sacrifice political expediency for a moral stand.

On civil rights, it is unclear how far JFK was moved by genuine compassion. He had taken an ambiguous stance on civil rights issues in the Senate and courted the black constituency in 1960 without following through with immediate reform.  Indeed, his death was probably his most telling contribution to the black cause. Real change could only be realised by Lyndon Johnson’s masterful manipulation of the Senate, which was boosted by the slain President’s legacy proclaimed commitment to the cause.

On top of these criticisms, knowledge of Kennedy’s dependency on Dr Max Jacobson (a celebrity physician who administered cocktails of amphetamines and steroids to his patients) and recreational drug use has come to light.

What does this all boil down to? Perhaps the most telling indicator of Kennedy’s legacy is that, while contemporary historians often rate Kennedy as an unexceptional President, the American people consistently place him alongside Lincoln and Roosevelt in the pantheon of iconic leaders.