Another contributor to the Kennedy legend, something deeper than his personal attractiveness, is the image of what many came to call grace. He not only had grace, in the sense of performing and acting gracefully; he was also a man who seemed to receive grace. He was handsome and looked athletic. He was wealthy. He had a captivating wife and children, a photogenic family. A friend of his, the journalist Ben Bradlee, wrote a 1964 book about Kennedy called That Special Grace.
The Kennedys lit up the White House with writers, artists, and intellectuals: the famous cellist Pablo Casals, the poet Robert Frost, the French intellectual André Malraux. Kennedy had graduated from Harvard, and stocked his administration with the school’s professors. He sprinkled his public remarks with quotations from poets and philosophers.
The Kennedy family helped create his career and, later, his legacy. He could never have reached the presidency without his father’s help. Joseph Kennedy, one of the wealthiest and most ruthless men in America, had counted on his first son, Joe Jr., to enter politics. When Joe died in the war, his father’s ambitions turned to the next-oldest son. He paid for all of John’s—Jack’s—campaigns and used his millions to bring in supporters. He prevailed on his friend Arthur Krock, of The New York Times, to help Jack publish his first book, Why England Slept. Years later, when Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage with the help of his aide Theodore Sorensen, Krock lobbied successfully for the book to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The Kennedy legacy has a darker side as well. Prior to his presidency, many of JFK’s political colleagues considered him merely a playboy whose wealthy father had bankrolled his campaigns. Many critics saw recklessness, impatience, impetuosity. Nigel Hamilton, the author of JFK: Reckless Youth, a generally admiring study of Kennedy’s early years, summed up after nearly 800 pages:
He had the brains, the courage, a shy charisma, good looks, idealism, money … Yet, as always, there was something missing—a certain depth or seriousness of purpose … Once the voters or the women were won, there was a certain vacuousness on Jack’s part, a failure to turn conquest into anything very meaningful or profound.
I. F. Stone, the distinguished liberal writer, observed in 1973: “By now he is simply an optical illusion.”
Kennedy’s image of youth and vitality is, to some degree, a myth. He spent much of his life in hospitals, battling a variety of ills. His ability to serve as president was itself a profile in courage.
Much has been written about Kennedy’s covert private life. Like his father, he was obsessed with the ritual of sexual conquest—before and during his marriage, before and during his presidency. While he was alive, the many women, the Secret Service agents, and the others who knew of his philandering kept it a secret. Still, now that the stories of his sexual activities are widely known, they have done little to tarnish his reputation.