The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy

The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy
Andrew Hoberek (Ed.)
Cambridge University Press  286pp  £17.99

Whenever a new study of John F. Kennedy appears, one is tempted to ask whether we really need yet another assessment of a 1,000-day presidency that was short on substantive achievement. The answer here is an affirmative one. That said, anyone wanting to know more about the politics and policies associated with JFK should look elsewhere. There are a handful of political essays here, all of them illuminating, especially Robert Mason’s on JFK’s surprising significance to modern American conservatism. However, the collection is largely focused on Kennedy within the cultural, intellectual and social milieu of his times and most of the essays are written by acad-emics drawn from departments of English rather than History.

Two interesting essays respectively explore the related significance of Kennedy’s Irish-American ethnicity and Catholicism. In a well-crafted analysis, Eoin Cannon demonstrates that JFK’s ascent to the presidency marked not just the completion of the Irish mobility saga, but the launch of hyphenated Americanism as a badge of pride. The greater barrier he faced in 1960, however, was religion, in a nation where anti-Catholicism was still a respectable prejudice, as demonstrated when the editor of Christianity Today declared that ‘Rome was little better than Moscow’. As Paul Giles shows, Kennedy’s campaign not only broke through a glass ceiling that had kept out Democrat presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in 1928, but also formed part of a much broader movement to modernise American Catholic thought and culture by circumscribing its parameters. As a consequence, religious difference increasingly became a non-issue in US politics, as the presidential ambitions of two other sons of Massachusetts would demonstrate: Catholic John Kerry in 2004 and Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. 

Modernity is the theme of many essays, ranging from Mary Ann Watson’s exploration of Kennedy’s unprecedented and still unmatched capacity to project himself on television as the epitome of cool when alive to the significance of the Camelot legacy for what Lee Konstantinou terms his ‘undying cinematic body’. In an illuminating essay, John Hellman analyses the surprising admiration of the New York intellectual elite for a politician who dabbled in middlebrow literature with his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Profiles in Courage. Whatever its doubts about this form of writing, this circle saw in Kennedy, both in his written words and his later presidential image, a celebrant of an ideal close to its heart: the tense, lonely and sacrificial relationship of the heroically independent thinker to society.

Kennedy’s modernity was more symbol than substance. As Vaughn Rasberry shows, the future president had distinguished himself as a critic of European colonialism when a senator, but in the Oval Office could not break free from Cold War considerations in supporting overseas aid and modernisation projects that were intended to stifle Third World autonomy. This brings us back to why Kennedy has spawned a literary industry on his life and significance. What these essays make clear is that the youngest president’s apparent challenge to so many orthodoxies in his brief tenure has become an infinitely renewable resource of hope for anyone invested in the promise of the United States.

Iwan Morgan is Professor of United States Studies at King’s College London.


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