Lily Geismer is a professor of U.S. history at Claremont McKenna College and author of “Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party.”
Writing on the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, historian William Leuchtenburg in 1983 predicted, “Like the fair youth on Keats’s Grecian urn, Kennedy will be . . . ‘for ever young,’ beyond the power of time and the words of historians.” “JFK: A Vision for America” commemorates the centennial of Kennedy’s birth, and it is jarring to imagine that he might have been that old. The compilation of speeches, essays and remembrances, however, shows that Leuchtenburg’s observation has not been entirely borne out. The book successfully opens Kennedy up to the assessment of present-day commentators and reveals both his historical significance and the relevance of his messages for our time.
Co-edited by Kennedy’s nephew Stephen Kennedy Smith and historian Douglas Brinkley, “JFK” brings together truly impressive contributors from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and partisan affiliations. From Elizabeth Warren, Samantha Power, John McCain, Henry Kissinger and Paul Krugman to Gloria Steinem, Conan O’Brien, Dave Eggers and Robert Redford, the contributors offer compelling commentary on Kennedy’s speeches.
It is clear that substantial time and thought went into the assembly and organization of this volume. In addition to the speeches and essays, the collection includes hundreds of formal and informal photographs of Kennedy, reproductions of personal ephemera such as report cards and annotated drafts of speeches, as well as timelines of key events in the history of the United States and the Kennedy family. The design at times makes “JFK” more closely resemble a scrapbook than an academic monograph. Still, the speeches and essays are filled with serious insights. Topics range from international development, globalization and fiscal policy to civil rights, art, religion and the environment, which together show the breadth of Kennedy’s ideas and the extent of their impact.
Despite the array of pictures capturing Kennedy and his family’s signature glamour and charisma, the structure of the book draws more attention to Kennedy’s substance than to his style. By emphasizing his speeches, editors especially underscore Kennedy’s love of language and ideas. The book’s approach shines light on some of JFK’s lesser-known remarks, such as his Senate speeches denouncing Western imperialism and as president calling for a more liberal immigration policy.
The book also invites new consideration of some of Kennedy’s better-known speeches, such as his 1960 campaign address on religion. This plea for religious tolerance encompassed Kennedy’s personal narrative, his grounding and knowledge of American history, and his utmost faith in the nation’s fundamental principles. Corresponding essays by Tariq Ramadan, Rick Warren and the Dalai Llama illustrate the range of groups for which this speech continues to have resonance. Its warning that “today I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you” is particularly timely.
The collection emphasizes that Kennedy’s “vision for America” was undeniably internationalist. The speeches and commentary reveal the ways in which his view of the United States’ place in the world took shape against the backdrop of the Cold War. It combined the seemingly contradictory impulses of idealism and realism, humanitarianism and staunch anticommunism, international cooperation and tough-minded militarism.
The book only gingerly addresses Kennedy’s role in the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the two most controversial events and legacies surrounding his presidency. Readers will ultimately have to look elsewhere for more critical accounts of these topics (as well as Kennedy’s somewhat checkered record on civil rights). “JFK” narrates the events of the Cuban missile crisis through McCain’s participation in military blockades. It does not dwell on the internal dynamics of the Kennedy administration and which of its decisions contributed to bringing the nation to the brink of nuclear war. Instead, the book focuses on the lessons Kennedy learned from the crisis and how he turned toward advocating peace in the last year of his presidency. The powerful contribution by former secretary of state John Kerry shows how the crisis and its aftermath demonstrated Kennedy’s keen understanding of the power and importance of diplomacy. Kerry contends that Kennedy’s recognition that diplomacy is an “art, not a science,” “hard work” and an act of “courage” ultimately makes his untimely death especially tragic.
Several of the contributors similarly focus on the sense of promise Kennedy embodied and his ability to kindle that promise in others, especially young people. A range of contributions show how his calls for action had a personal impact and shaped the career trajectories of not just public servants but authors, including David McCullough, Don DeLillo and Paul Theroux, who offers a particularly eloquent account of his experience as an early Peace Corps volunteer.
While the editors and contributors are careful to avoid wading into nostalgic celebration, a wistful tone pervades almost every essay, demonstrating how the volume itself is a product of the current moment in history. The majority of contributors remark on how Kennedy’s ideas continue to resonate. At the same time, many stress how his positions on several issues — from respect for the media and academia to his understanding of the responsibility demanded by public service — contrast with those of our contemporary politicians. Warren forcefully suggests that we should continue to judge our public servants and their administrations by the yardstick Kennedy laid out in 1961, just before taking the oath of office, which stressed courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.
Ultimately, the collection illustrates Kennedy’s wide-ranging knowledge and curiosity, sense of the importance of public service and international cooperation, belief in religious diversity, commitment to deliberate action and negotiation, respect for the position of the presidency, love of the country, and rich understanding and appreciation of its history. The book inevitably conjures up a stark contrast to the president who currently sits at the desk under which John F. Kennedy Jr. famously played. Thus, if anything, “JFK” reminds us to heed Kennedy’s warning that “if we don’t know anything about our past, then we don’t really have any base from which to move in the days ahead.”
Edited by Stephen Kennedy Smith and Douglas Brinkley
Harper. 494 pp. $45