Reich asserts that the most powerful element of Kennedy’s legacy is his emphasis on the theme of citizenship, and that a rededication to the values Kennedy promoted will shine a bright path forward for our country. Evoking the hopes and aspirations of the 1960s, Reich recaptures the excitement of the Kennedy era. But what truly sets this book apart is the unique way it blends the romance of Camelot with the new frontiers of today—not only identifying modern challenges, but also offering a tangible blueprint for how we can improve our public discourse, be good citizens, and lift our nation to new heights of greatness.
Part history and part call to action, The Power of Citizenship hones in on the very essence of what made JFK so inspirational and timeless, reminding us once again that we must ask what we can do for our country. This is a must-read for Americans of all generations.
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The Kennedy Promise
"Don't let it be forgot That once there was a spot, For one brief shining moment That was known as Camelot."
— from the 1960 musical Camelot
HALF A CENTURY ago, a charismatic young president challenged Americans to be good citizens. He spoke of the need for a new generation to take up the torch of progress and lift the nation to new heights of greatness — daring Americans to be better, to reject the status quo, and to shape a bright future. He envisioned a country and world of increased cooperation, of collective responsibility, where anything was achievable if people saw past their differences and worked together. It was a time of excitement and adventure and promise — a New Frontier, he called it — a time for Americans to be bold and courageous.
At the peak of it all, the voice that inspired so much was silenced, leaving the country and future generations wondering what might have been. Yet rather than lament the past, we have the opportunity to look closely at the man and his mission — specifically, the ideals of citizenship he promoted and his belief that there were new horizons for Americans to explore — and to consider how we can revitalize that same quest for greatness today. In a word, Camelot — the quixotic name we give to John F. Kennedy's presidency and that unique time in our collective past — did not have to end in 1963. We can bring it back today.
The familiar story goes that Kennedy's bold rhetoric swept an entire generation of Americans into careers of public service and government, marking a historical turning point when the prestige of government itself increased and a more robust spirit of service permeated public discourse and action. It was a time when people seemed inclined to pursue careers serving the public interest — when civil service jobs were appealing and engagement in public affairs was deep.
To be sure, informal historical accounts by nature tend to gloss over certain details, and perhaps our collective memory of the trumpet's call to service during the 1960s is too rosy, overdone, and enhanced by the romance of Camelot. But the seeming contrast with modern times nonetheless begs reflection on contemporary understandings of individual responsibility in public affairs and the manner in which our civic discourse seems to have veered so far off course.
To understand the mission, we must first look at the man.
The King of Camelot
John F. Kennedy was not a great president in the traditional sense. His presidency boasted no sweeping legislative achievements. He won no wars. The economy did not boom under his leadership. The soaring rhetoric at times did not match the actions actually taken or offer a true reshaping of the status quo that might vault him into the traditional pantheon of presidential greatness that includes the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts. Yet when we recall his not quite three years in office, we think of the term the media loves to use for him: Camelot.
When Jacqueline Kennedy first brought to mind the imagery of Camelot in an interview with the journalist Theodore White shortly after JFK's death, this was perhaps a young widow's attempt to secure for her late husband a place in the rich history of the country he loved. It was also, undoubtedly, a conscious endeavor to cement in the public view the notion that the early 1960s were a magical, transformative time for America and the world under Kennedy's watch. In some ways, her tying Camelot to him was the beginning of the shaping of his legacy — a legacy that has ebbed and flowed with the passage of time but that nonetheless remains a point of fascination for men and women of all ages.
The world loves to remember JFK. Schools and streets have been named for him; parks, buildings, and an airport bear his name. Children are named after him. He is quoted in speeches. His words rest on plaques and refrigerator magnets and bumper stickers. Images of his face adorn book covers, posters, and the walls of college dorm rooms, offices, and people's homes. He is one of only a few figures in American history known simply by his initials — no further identifying factors are needed.
In Washington, D.C., millions of people have visited his grave set high on a hill at Arlington National Cemetery. Indeed, many children have had perhaps their first conscious interaction with Kennedy by visiting the grave and receiving an explanation of the importance of this man with the eternal flame over his final resting place. To hear such explanations offers a telling glimpse into the ways in which Kennedy endures. Some speak of his tragic death; others emphasize aspects of his life; and still others wonder, sometimes aloud, what things might have been like for the country and the world had he lived longer and served a second term.
Near the grave is a low memorial wall inscribed with quotations from the president's historic inaugural address. Here, for all time, are words chiseled into granite to offer generations of visitors a chance to bear witness to the guiding principles of the Kennedy presidency. Seeing such beautiful prose on the wall — including lines such as "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty," and "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world" — makes one wonder: if, over the centuries, our whole civilization were to disappear but for that wall, would it alone tell future historians enough about who we were as a people? A short drive from the cemetery is the performing arts center that bears his name, which honors the arts in ways commensurate with the manner in which Kennedy promoted them. Not far from the performing arts center is the White House, where the most famous portrait of Kennedy — the painting with the president looking downward over his folded arms — hangs prominently on the first floor.
And still, Kennedy is remembered in other ways. He is honored by the presidential library dedicated to his memory in Columbia Point, Boston. His birthplace in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been designated a national historic site. There is a museum in Dallas near the fateful place he was shot. Items that belonged to the president regularly fetch large sums at auctions (in February 2013, for instance, the president's Air Force One bomber jacket was sold for $570,000). Films and television miniseries such as JFK, The Kennedys, The Missiles of October, Thirteen Days, and others have depicted his life, aspects of his time in office, and his assassination. New books are published about him every year. Teachers recite words that he spoke. His name enters the national discourse during every political convention and amidst coverage of almost any presidential election debate. The media hovers around Kennedy as subject matter on every five-year anniversary of his birth, death, historic election, and inauguration.
Year after year, we seem only to increase this longing, this devotion to learning more about Kennedy — we want to see him again; we want to understand him from a different angle; we want to be reminded of this time in our collective past. He is, undeniably, an American icon embedded deeply in our national consciousness. But why? Why this man?
The Power of Television
There are several explanations for why Kennedy remains as pervasive in American culture as he does. Television, among other media, powerfully captured the essence of Kennedy's presidency in ways that perpetuate our collective remembrance of this period by means not available to most presidents who preceded him.
The swelling of television ownership during Kennedy's presidency transformed — almost overnight — the manner in which citizens interacted with their president. Just as radio helped connect presidents and citizens in prior years (think Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats"), television brought this interaction to a whole new level that invited a different kind of presidential dialogue and a more personalized view of the president. Rather than read about the news or listen to it, individuals could watch it from the comfort of their living rooms and see their president in action. Television shrunk the gap that separated the news from the viewer, in turn making the president seem more accessible and more concrete.
Kennedy understood this newfound power, and he wielded it in constructive ways. He used the new medium as a tool to bolster his initiatives and bring his case for a host of issues directly to the American people. This effort included regularly televised press conferences and major speeches captured live with audiences customarily in the millions. These changes enabled him to communicate more effectively with the American people, giving him a forum to convey to the public at large whatever messages he wanted — meaning he could, for example, publicly accept blame for his mistakes (such as in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion), which would ingratiate him with a sympathetic electorate; convey the refined tastes and style of the First Lady (such as her televised tour of the refurbished White House), which would add to the perceived sense of nobility many had begun to see; and put the weight of his office behind a particular issue (such as the way he handled his landmark civil rights speech), appearing very "presidential" while so doing.
Television had other consequences, too. It meant that the "middleman" role played by the media was altered to become at times simply the medium of delivery rather than a curator of the message. Instead of receiving condensed versions of speeches and positions articulated by a president in newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, viewers could formulate their own opinions about presidential action more directly, more basically, and more immediately. This ability permitted a more intimate exchange between the president and the average citizen — leaving room for a more personal interpretation of the president's message. Kennedy therefore became a tangible figure to the electorate — perhaps the first truly tangible president in the sense that his image was regularly broadcast into the homes of Americans, and, in consequence, he became universally recognized in his role as president, his image cemented in the minds of viewers in ways images of other presidents had not been.
Though we revere men such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, we do not feel the same connection to them that we feel with modern leaders — those who have joined us in our living rooms. We don't know what these great men of the past were truly like or if they were even likable. What we know about them is based on what others have told us about their words and deeds. They remain impersonal; relics of history whose impact on our lives no doubt remains strong but nonetheless distant.
The prevalence of television also dramatized the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath in ways that fortified public perception of the late president. Television enabled the news of his death to spread faster than any other bit of news had been relayed perhaps in history up to then. When Walter Cronkite's live early afternoon broadcast relayed the sad news from Dallas, it was so momentous, so earth-shattering, that as the message was conveyed, an entire generation of Americans' lives stopped and became frozen in time forever. Indeed, news of the assassination shocked a generation the way the bombing of Pearl Harbor had done and the way another generation would be so heavily affected by the events of September 11.
Two days after JFK was killed, Americans watched as Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered live on television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transported from a Dallas police station to a county jail. Events were spinning out of control and seemed so far-fetched, so foreign, that they bordered on the imaginary.
In the wake of the assassination was the state funeral for the slain president — intricately modeled, at the First Lady's request, after the state funeral conducted for Abraham Lincoln — broadcast live for the country and world to see, allowing all to agonize with the young widow (Jackie was thirty-four) as she marched with the late president's surviving brothers; to cry when the president's three-year-old namesake famously saluted his father's coffin as it passed him by, a salute captured for all time by the rolling cameras; to grieve for the young daughter, just shy of her sixth birthday, who seemed on the cusp of understanding at least the permanence of the tragedy, that her father would not be coming home. The country was heartbroken, and these somber images were seared deeply and eternally into the American consciousness.
Later, the existence of the famous Zapruder film — which caught the assassination live on camera from the amateur hands of an innocent bystander — became public, and soon Americans could actually watch the haunting images of the murder: the slow progression of the presidential limousine, the gunshots, the president clutching his throat, the chaos surrounding the motorcade, Jackie climbing onto the back of the car to retrieve what was apparently a piece of her husband's scalp, and Secret Service agent Clint Hill sprinting toward the First Couple and hitching himself to the car for the ride to Parkland Hospital, where they hoped that emergency medical assistance would prevent the dreaded fears from becoming reality. Even fifty years later, viewers of the film are instilled with the impossible desire of somehow stopping the motorcade — wishing that they could only press "pause" on the videotape, or speed up Kennedy's car, or avoid the turn onto Elm Street, or offer a warning, or cancel the trip to Dallas altogether — a trip Kennedy made only begrudgingly in an effort to assuage tensions that had arisen among warring factions of the Democratic Party in Texas.
Then the conspiracy theories spread, as countless people questioned the claim that Oswald had acted alone. Was it the enemies the Kennedys had made in the CIA? Hoover's people at the FBI? The Soviets? The Cubans? The Italian Mafia? Oil interests? A disgruntled civil rights opponent? Some sort of "divine retribution," as Lyndon Johnson put it, for allegedly condoning the murders of foreign heads of state (Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam)? The subsequent release of the Warren Commission's report seemed dubious to many, generating a whole new slew of theories. All of these events had the collective impact of securing a certain kind of immortality for Kennedy that may never fade.
The Kennedy Mystique
While television captured images of Kennedy, including the assassination, it also highlighted the youth and vitality he and his family exuded that in turn created an aura of royalty for them. At forty-three, he was the youngest person ever elected president (Theodore Roosevelt became president at age forty-two by virtue of William McKinley's death). By nature of his age, he remains one of the few presidents who had very young children in the White House (even the children of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not quite as young as Kennedy's were at the time). Images of Kennedy playing with his children in the Oval Office — including John Jr. hiding underneath his father's desk and Caroline skipping around the perimeter of the room while the president clapped his hands and encouraged her — resonated deeply with an adoring public, as did Americans' fascination with Jackie's chic styles and sophisticated taste. Likewise, there was the Kennedys' enormous wealth, their good looks, and popular images from the family estates in Hyannis Port and Palm Beach, where they played games of touch football and sunbathed.
One element of this aura is the profound sense of tragedy associated with the family. Before Kennedy was elected president, he had lost two siblings in plane crashes, and another was kept out of the public eye after a botched brain surgery left her incapacitated. Nearly five years after Kennedy's death, his brother Bobby was killed, and shortly after that, his youngest brother, Ted, was engulfed in the disaster remembered as Chappaquiddick. Later was a failed presidential run for Ted in which he challenged a sitting president in a primary. One Kennedy cousin was accused of rape in a high-profile case that brought many family members to court. Other cousins died in accidents, including a drug overdose and a ski crash. Then John Jr.'s plane went down, so the prince of Camelot was gone, too. Were they cursed? All this reinforced the notion that there was something romantic about this family; it all deepened the public's curiosity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Power of Citizenship"
Copyright © 2013 Scott D. Reich.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I The Man and the Mission
Chapter 1 The Kennedy Promise 3
Chapter 2 Becoming JFK 23
Chapter 3 A Bold Candidacy 51
Part II The New Frontier
Chapter 4 An Appeal to Our Pride 79
Chapter 5 Challenges Abroad 109
Chapter 6 On the Homefront 143
Part III The Citizen of Today
Chapter 7 The Next Frontier 183
Chapter 8 Profiles in Service 203
Chapter 9 Embracing Our Citizenship 221
Timeline-The Life of JFK 244
Inspiring Words from Our Presidents 246
About the Author 281