The Man and the Myths

Congressman-elect John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts looks through the Washington, D.C., real estate listings in November 1946 to find a place to live. He wound up in Georgetown. (Associated Press)

After John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, The Atlantic published “Death of a Man,” John L’Heureux’s poem eulogizing the president as a “man of goodness” whose killing at 46 was permitted by God for reasons “we do not ripely understand.” Kennedy, a president with a sufficiently rounded appreciation of politics to call poetry “the means of saving power from itself,” had a particular appeal to the nation’s artists.

“Let mankind hobble home now on its knees,” L’Heureux wrote.

When we contacted the poet, now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, to ask whether we could republish his poem, he said that he had one condition: that we delete a line in which he described Kennedy’s “lifeless body cradled by his queen in life.”

L’Heureux, who was a Jesuit seminarian when he wrote these verses, told me he almost instantly regretted the line, and long ago stopped reciting it when he read the poem aloud. “It played into the whole notion of eternal trumpets and the planets stopping in their course—the exaggeration of the death of a superhero, rather than of a man who had good intentions,” he said. The poem, pruned of its one purple blossom, appears in this issue.

To accompany the new stories we commissioned for this issue, we drilled into The Atlantic’s archive and extracted what amounts to a core sample of views, from across the political seasons, of Jack Kennedy. New and old, the pieces collected here reveal the many sources—the glamour, the drama of his era, the shock of his death, the revelations over the years of his private pains, doubts, and cruelties—of Kennedy’s continued hold on the national imagination. They also reveal how contingent our judgments can be—the judgments not just of journalism, but of poetry and history.

In what seem now to have been more-leisurely decades, at least for the analysis of news, The Atlantic published a monthly “Report on Washington” to inform its readers of the views of those who would one day be known as Beltway insiders (that highway was completed in 1964). You can see a familiar arc of White House coverage, from a gimlet-eyed account of Kennedy’s political tactics, to hosannas for an “energetic new president,” to—by the time of our Report of July 1963—eye-rolling familiarity and sighing disappointment:

Probably no other sentence he has uttered has proved more embarrassing to the president than his eloquent inaugural plea: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” That simplicity of phrase brought a chorus of “What do you want us to do?” to which there has been precious little response.

By the December 1963 issue (which went off to the printer before the president was murdered on November 22), the Report noted “an unpleasant air of defeatism in Washington” and observed, “The administration has come almost full cycle from the cry of what can be done to the cry of what cannot be done … It will be interesting to see what tone he adopts in his reelection campaign … to persuade the country that the dynamism of his administration has not been lost.”

After the assassination, The Atlantic’s tone changed again. “President Kennedy did not let America sleep,” we reported in January 1964, praising his handling of the Cuban missile crisis as having halted Russia decisively. By the February issue, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison was extolling Kennedy’s courage and comparing the significance of his decision making to Lincoln’s. “Alas, that we shall never again see that bright, vivid personality, whose every act and every appearance made us proud of him, and who gave us fresh confidence in our country, even in ourselves.”

With our later coverage come less flattering insights: his temporizing on poverty, his deceptions about the powerful drugs he was taking for various ailments, his philandering. The Atlantic’s earlier praise for Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis disintegrates as you read Garry Wills’s 1982 account of how Kennedy recklessly provoked and then pursued the confrontation, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

And yet today we find historians still struggling to complete a picture that grows more complex with the years. In his new examination for this issue, Robert Dallek reports that Kennedy, during the Cuban crisis, faced down trigger-happy generals who were demanding air strikes and accusing the president of appeasement.

Perhaps we can’t, anymore, simply praise Kennedy. But neither can we bury him. For his part, John L’Heureux, like President Clinton, now admires Kennedy for having succeeded in laying the foundation for Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent progress on civil rights. “Laying foundations,” L’Heureux told me, “is no small thing.”