At JFK’s Centenary, Historian Steven Watts Views a Mixed Legacy

John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra

May 29th marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of 35th American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As I reflected on this milestone over the weeks preceding it, it occurred to me that I’m part of a shrinking demographic: those with actual memories of the Kennedy presidency.

I have only a dim recollection of the 1960 presidential campaign. My immediate family – with the exception of my paternal grandmother, staunch Democrat Avah Wood – were Richard Nixon supporters. As kids my brother Brian and I followed suit, making great fun of a pro-Kennedy TV jingle that bleated the name “Kennedy” like a mantra. I vaguely remember the birth of JFK, Jr., 10 days before the arrival of my baby brother Eric. I recall somewhat more clearly how distraught my grade-school music teacher Mrs. Rawe was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. And I have stronger memories of the 1963 assassination and its aftermath, especially the killing of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on the Sunday following Kennedy’s death. My family had the television on as we prepared to head off to church that morning and – like so many other families – were stunned to witness live images of Oswald’s shooting by Jack Ruby, right there in our living room.

While I have more firsthand knowledge of the Kennedy era than a lot of people, it’s obviously still fairly sketchy. Luckily, I was recently able to speak with a JFK expert: Steven Watts, historian and author of JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier (Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press, 2016). Watts is also a professor at the University of Missouri, so I asked him what impressions students have these days of Kennedy and his presidency. He said most have “very stereotypical sorts of ‘Camelot-y’ images” based on photographs of JFK, wife Jacqueline and children Caroline and “John-John.” A few have a basic grasp of the Missile Crisis, having studied it in high school history classes. Otherwise, their knowledge is scant. “It’s a pretty thin veneer, actually…. They do see [the Kennedy era] as deep, deep in the American past.”

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Watts’s book is the latest in a series of biographies of culturally important figures that he’s written over the years – including studies of Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner, Henry Ford and Dale Carnegie. The idea of writing about JFK came to Watts while working on the Hefner book. “The more I got into it, the more I became convinced that Kennedy may best be understood as a cultural figure rather than a political one.”

Kennedy branded himself cannily as a man’s man.

Watts’s thesis is that Kennedy’s ascendancy took off in 1960 largely because the Democratic candidate’s youthful, masculine vigor was seen as a tonic for a society that had come to regard itself as flabby and “feminized” in the years following World War II. Social critics reminded Americans in countless magazine articles that American males had gone from fighting tough battles in Europe and the Pacific to toiling as drab “organization men” a decade later. Men, they pointed out, now performed household chores previously the domain of women. Critics also attributed what they saw as an increased incidence of homosexuality among both men and women as a sign of weakened American masculinity. Watts begins his book by describing a 1958 Esquire article by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote,

Today men are more and more conscious of maleness not as a fact but as a problem.

James Dean and Jim Backus in “Rebel Without a Cause”

Did men of the era indeed feel anxiety about the supposed diminishment of masculinity, or were they perfectly content before critics such as Schlesinger told them they needed to be anxious? Watts believes the unease was genuine and that signs of it permeated the culture in multiple places – turning up, for instance, in such popular books as The Lonely Crowd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and in feature films, including North by Northwest and Rebel Without a Cause. In his book, he cites a scene from Rebel in which actor Jim Backus – portraying the father of the title character played by James Dean – appears in a frilly apron. In the scene, Dean’s character confronts his father, asking him, “What can you do when you have to be a man?” Watts recalled, “I remember watching that movie when I was doing the book and when [the Backus scene] flashed on the screen, it was like – oh, man – I couldn’t have made this up!”

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Arthur Schlesinger would go on to be an ardent Kennedy admirer. During the 1960 election, he wrote a pro-Kennedy pamphlet in which he claimed that war hero JFK, unlike Richard Nixon, came from a realm “of serious men trying to find serious solutions to serious problems.” During and after the election, Kennedy – who, like his father, Joseph, was fascinated by and drawn to the Hollywood star-making machine – branded himself cannily as a man’s man. He capitalized on his WWII heroism while finding ways to hide his debilitating physical ailments from the public.

A “jaw-dropping” tally of dalliances.

In describing the cult of masculinity that clustered around Kennedy, Watts writes chapters on other cultural figures that were emblematic of early-1960s-style manliness and “cool.” All of these figures had connections either actual or apparent to the candidate/president himself. They included entertainer Frank Sinatra, writer Norman Mailer, James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Playboy publisher Hefner, journalist Ben Bradlee and astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn. The details Watts includes in these chapters are often telling and sometimes astounding. For instance, he notes that during the presidency, JFK concocted a tongue-in-cheek James Bond scenario in which Vice-President Lyndon Johnson plotted to take over the presidency. Kennedy went so far as to act in a homemade “Bond” film in which he played himself being shot by gunmen while coming off his yacht in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

JFK, writes Watts, launched a campaign for “manly regeneration.”

I was particularly surprised by Watts’s description in the book of the cozy relationship between Kennedy and Bradlee. The journalist befriended him, and advocated for him both during and after the 1960 election, while at the same time writing Newsweek stories about him. I asked whether Bradlee’s disregard for conflicts of interest was unusual for the era. Watts said that, in preparing the book, he spoke with colleagues at U of M’s journalism school about the Bradlee/Kennedy alliance. “Without fail,“ Watts noted, “they said they thought Bradlee had engaged – even in the context of the time – in some pretty questionable behavior.” Making the situation with Bradlee stickier, JFK made passes at the journalist’s wife, Tony, and indulged in an affair with Tony’s sister, Mary Meyer, during his presidency.

Watts found the president’s reputation as a philanderer particularly troubling. He was, of course, aware of Kennedy’s womanizing before starting the project, but as he gathered research for the book, he found himself shocked by the extent of the dalliances. “It was just jaw-dropping to me – a real turn off…. It’s not even, so much, the [immorality] of it – although he stretches you pretty badly on that front. But it was the recklessness of it, and the way in which his womanizing behavior put the country and his administration in danger.”

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Did Kennedy qualify as a “misogynist”? Considering the question in 2017 terms, Watts said yes: “He couldn’t view women as equals, with brains – people who could be friends or colleagues, or someone you could debate with.” But, he added: “I associate misogyny also with a kind of nasty put-down of women. And I don’t think Kennedy really had that in him…. I think he liked women. He loved women. He didn’t have contempt for them in that way.” Watts believes that JFK the cool and forceful leader cannot be divorced from JFK the philanderer. Both aspects of the man reside in the super-masculine image he presented to the world.

Cultural historian and teacher Steven Watts.

All things considered, Watts sees the Kennedy legacy as a mixed one. He admires JFK as “a pragmatic politician who was interested in solutions over ideology” and agrees that the president’s robust charisma inspired positive idealism among young Americans; however, he also feels that the hyper-masculine ethos that emerged during the early 1960s had a “corrosive” effect on the culture in the years following the assassination. Attitudes rooted in machismo contributed to toxic aggression among such officials as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the Vietnam conflict. On the other side, young dissenters who had been inspired by Kennedy as they came of age grew increasingly restless with the status quo. When the two sides slammed into one another, the collision resulted in serious damage to the social fabric. Added Watts:

I think that the image of the ‘alpha’ male, by the late ’60s was satisfying almost no one. I think by then the more rebellious types had just rejected it completely and the more traditional types fixated more on the moral aspects – or immoral aspects – of the Kennedy ethos.

Watts acknowledged, nonetheless, that a streak of glamorous nostalgia for the JFK years persists in the culture, even on the occasion of Kennedy’s hundredth birthday when so many Americans lack actual memories of the era. “People see in Kennedy what they want to see.”