Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Kennedy more style than substance

The youngest US president, and the first Catholic one, is remembered more for his inspirational message and assassination than for his policy achievements



When he took office in 1961, former US president John Kennedy swept new style, youth, energy, liberalism and good looks into American politics that captivated not only a generation of young people but also the country's newest medium -- television.

Kennedy's election as the country's only Catholic and youngest president, at 43, broke the first of many political taboos that had kept blacks, women, non-Protestants and Hispanics out of national politics.

In the 40 years since his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, all those barriers, and then some, have fallen, pushed by the social activism and upheavals of the 1960s that Kennedy helped not only to inspire by example, but also to provoke by setting in motion the reviled US war in Vietnam.

The main message that got through to American youth, however, was the social engagement of Kennedy's Peace Corps and the scientific striving that finally, after his death, put the first man on the moon.

Both involved sacrifice, he warned.

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," Kennedy told the country in his inaugural address in possibly his most famous quote.

The election of this privileged son of Joseph Kennedy also brought a fashion-conscious 31-year-old wife, Jacqueline, into the White House to redecorate and restore much of its lost history. She sparked redevelopment in a shabby-looking capital city and inspired women to wear pill-box hats and dresses with sleek lines.

Gone were the frumpy curls and fussy floral dresses of Mamie Eisenhower and her World War II hero of a husband, general Dwight Eisenhower. Both were born in the previous century, in the 1890s.

"It was a generational change," said Stephen Hess, an analyst at Brookings Institution, a private think tank in Washington.

"It was exciting and captured not only the imagination of the American people but also certainly of the world, Europe, Latin America," Hess said.

While the Kennedy clan brought glamour to politics, analysts have been less congratulatory of Kennedy's administration. Kennedy did face down an ever-expanding Soviet communism in Cuba and Berlin, led the country out of the Cuban missile crisis and renewed good will in Europe.

But he also bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, set the nation on its disastrous path to Vietnam and failed to carry through on Eisenhower's desegregation momentum. It was up to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to push through the "Great Society" war on poverty and civil rights legislation.

"In retrospect, [Kennedy's administration] was not an exceptional presidency," Hess said. "It was style over substance. Most of what people remember about it now is his death."

The media dubbed Kennedy's White House years "Camelot" after King Arthur's mythical realm. Entertainers, singers, Nobel laureates and artists came to dine with Jackie and Jack in a White House Renaissance of ideas and culture.

"It brought a type of energy and excitement and enthusiasm that the nation hadn't seen for some time," Hess said.

Camelot crashed with the assassination, plunging the country into a grief intensified through coverage by the newest medium, television. Millions mourned in their living rooms, gathered around an unprecedented week of live broadcasts leading to Kennedy's funeral.

Schools closed, and children watched the unforgettable details of the funeral that Jackie Kennedy, image conscious even in mourning, had planned: Kennedy's small son, John, saluting the casket, which was drawn by a riderless horse with upside-down boots in the stirrups and the playing of the Navy hymn, reminding the nation of Kennedy's heroism as a World War II Navy officer.

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