29 May 2017
Tim Koch on the centenary of a man whose story is part legend, part myth:
Today, 29 May, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Fitzgerald ‘Jack’ Kennedy (JFK), 35th President of the United States. It is famously said that only the good die young, and his assassination in 1963 at the age of 46 after just over 1000 days as President ensured that the man and his brief administration retains near mythological status. While many unquestionably accept the legend of ‘Camelot’, they ignore the fact that Kennedy failed to pass much of his proposed civil rights legislation and, had he lived, he would have had to deal with the Vietnam War, something that would have surely damaged his standing as a secular saint. However, while it is arguable that he never really fulfilled his youthful promise, when JFK is compared with some other Presidents, he still represents America at its best, his dignity contrasting sharply with the vulgarity of some of his successors. If you start a great task positively, with soaring rhetoric and with hope, you can achieve or you can fail, but if you start negatively, with hatred and with ignorance, then you can only fail.
It would be nice to say something about JFK’s experiences of rowing. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be a sport that ever held any attraction for him, even though he would have had ample opportunity to try it, both at prep school, Choate, and later at Harvard University. However, time in and on water was an important part of his life.
Although he suffered frequent ill health at school, by the time he got to Harvard, Kennedy was a very good swimmer. However, The Harvard Crimson may have been guilty of hyperbole when it wrote:
At the November time-trials his backstroke earned him a place on what, at the time, was the greatest Freshman team in Harvard history. (Kennedy’s) regular medley trio… helped win the Yale swim meet… Kennedy swam varsity for two years and earned his letter in the Yale meet of his Senior year.
Sailing was one of Kennedy’s lifelong passions and while at Harvard, he won the MacMillian Bowl, effectively the intercollegiate sailing championship. Perhaps this is not surprising as sailing was the unofficial Kennedy family sport (along with playing touch football with the rest of the clan and having multiple love affairs).
After his motor torpedo boat was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands in August 1943, Lieutenant Kennedy swam three-and-a-half miles to a deserted island, towing an injured crewman by a belt through his teeth. This, his inspiring leadership, and his other actions to save the surviving crew, earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the U.S. Navy’s highest non-combat award for heroism, and the Purple Heart, awarded to those wounded or killed in service. The full story is worth reading. It is also interesting to speculate on which of his successors would have been capable of similar actions.
Despite an earlier back injury that initially resulted in Kennedy’s rejection for military service, he used his father’s influence to get him into the war. By contrast, during the Vietnam era, one future President allegedly used his father’s influence to keep him out of the war. In the 1960s and 1970s, two future Commander-in-Chiefs avoided the draft (conscription). Perhaps JFK had feet of clay – but he did not have supposed heel spurs (though I should acknowledge that the war in Vietnam did not have the same moral certainties as the fight against the Axis Powers in the Second World War).