JFK: The President's Life in Retrospect

American Icons, Featured Article, Hometown Heroes
on November 14, 2013
John F. Kennedy promoted space exploration at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1962.

While the circumstances surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s death continue to captivate, it was JFK’s political career and policies that define the man whose life was ended Nov. 22, 1963, by an assassin’s bullet. American Profile asked Thomas J. Putman, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, Mass., to help put JFK’s life into perspective 50 years after his death.

American Profile: At age 43, JFK became the youngest elected president in U.S. history. What prepared him for the Oval Office?

Thomas J. Putnam: President Kennedy attended some of the finest schools in the nation, yet his military service and experiences during World War II, and his travels through Europe both before and after the war, best prepared him to serve as president during the Cold War.

AP: What were JFK’s greatest political accomplishments and failures as president?

TP: He felt his greatest accomplishment was the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Historians list his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, his speech on civil rights and his decision to send a man to the moon as high points in his presidency. His greatest failure was the unsuccessful 1961 military invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.

AP: JFK is known for his immortal speeches. What are his most famous words and why do they endure?

TP: The most memorable line from his stirring inaugural address in January 1961 remains his signature statement: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Internationally, his most famous words were spoken in solidarity with the people of West Berlin, Germany: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner,” which means I am a citizen of Berlin.

AP: JFK launched the Kennedy political dynasty. Why are the Kennedys revered around the world?

TP: First, they represent the American dream. Irish immigrant and cooper Patrick Kennedy arrived in America in 1849 and, a little more than a century later, his great-grandson attained the most powerful political office in the world. Second, the Kennedys have used their fame and fortune to advance humanitarian causes and improve the lives of others, which has endeared them to many around the world.

AP: What don’t most Americans know about the nation’s 35th president that they should?

TP: Few know how much pain President Kennedy suffered from his lifelong battle with Addison’s disease, a rare hormone disorder. Historian Robert Dallek has written that some people might not have voted for JFK had they known about his health problems. Yet Dallek concludes that Kennedy’s silence on his health while dealing with strenuous presidential duties indicated an uncommon strength of character.

AP: Americans remain captivated by the circumstances surrounding JFK’s death. Why does his assassination continue to intrigue?

TP: He was killed at the height of his powers and in the prime of his life. His assassination, it could be argued, was the beginning of a national loss of innocence that continued with the deaths of his brother Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the 1960s race riots, the Vietnam War and Watergate. Despite the efforts of the Warren Commission, which investigated JFK’s death, questions remain in the minds of many concerning what happened on that day, and for those individuals, even 50 years later, it seems unlikely that they will ever be fully resolved.