Even though he has been gone for 25 years, he still looms as a giant. Oh, we have felt much freer to criticize him as a president, and even as a human being, during the past decade. But that has not dimmed the enormity of the legend of John F. Kennedy.
Last week I attended a lecture by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., noted American historian and White House intellectual during the Kennedy administration. Schlesinger helped to immortalize Kennedy in his popular account, "A Thousand Days," published less than 20 months after the assassination.Schlesinger said he could not be objective about Kennedy "because he was my friend." He spoke about Kennedy's gifts of leadership and the president's amazing ability to relate to people with grace and wit. When Kennedy approached him about joining the White House staff, Schlesinger expressed interest but also frustration, saying, "I really have no idea what I would be doing there." Kennedy replied: "Well, I'm about to go there as president and I have no idea what I'm going to be doing either. At least we'll be doing it together."
In contrast with Reagan and other recent politicians, Kennedy's inaugural speech failed to establish any sort of cozy intimacy with his audience. Instead, it sounded a lofty note, asking Americans to be willing to sacrifice to do battle with man's common enemies - tyranny, poverty, disease and war.
"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy promised almost as an afterthought that he would work to defend human rights at home and abroad. He talked about passing the torch to a "new generation of Americans," and the youthful president seemed impressive indeed.
The fact that his popularity rating never fell below 59 percent during his presidency suggests not only his unusual charisma, but his continuing ability to relate to the public. At the urging of his new press secretary, Pierre Salinger, Kennedy agreed to hold regular, frequent press conferences on television. Kennedy was superbly suited to the medium of television, and his intellect responded to the demands of a question and answer session from energetic journalists.
The need to be prepared for these conferences forced Kennedy to stay current on a wide range of governmental matters, and he spoke easily, utilizing his unique wit. More important, he utilized a rare gift of turning the question on the questioner when he received a hot potato. He had the habit of asking the questioner for clarification, which often embarrassed the journalist instead of the president. Kennedy's notable skill with the press conference allowed him to completely control the forum and use it to build his public image.
As a college student, I can remember being fascinated by his press conferences, never missing one if I could help it, whether on radio or TV, always wondering what interesting, well-phrased, clever response he would come up with next. I was as taken with his technique as with the content of the press conferences, and it is evident that many other Americans felt similarly.
Unfortunately, presidential press conferences have never been the same since. Those who followed Kennedy in office have been uncomfortable with the vehicle, and have put severe limitations or restrictions on press conferences. Johnson did not like them televised and preferred small groups of reporters that he could control better. Nixon was imperial in the press conferences until he almost stopped having them at all when corruption overtook him. Ford had difficulty with the language, and continually tripped over himself. Carter was well informed and fluent, but his lack of wit and technique made his conferences seem tedious.
Reagan, who could always deliver a prepared speech flawlessly with an actor's flair, was awkward and nervous in the press conference and constantly "misspoke" himself, meaning he continually said things that were inaccurate or false. Finally, he just stopped having them altogether. We had to be content with Reagan yelling a couple of brief replies over the noise of the helicopter on the White House lawn.
There was no Kennedy-esque candidate in the 1988 campaign, in spite of attempts to draw comparisons. Neither Bush nor Dukakis indicated a strong penchant for press conferences. Instead, they cynically manipulated the press, especially television, for their own purposes, providing "sound bites" for the evening news. No wonder the Kennedy legend thrives.