It’s a black-and-white picture we’ve all seen before: an earnest, 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. It was snapped in July 1963 in the Rose Garden, soon after Kennedy addressed a group of Boys Nation delegates. Ever since, and most notably during his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton has recalled the moment. For him, it was more than a brief encounter; it was an experience, and one so powerful that Clinton once said it caused him to have “arthritis of the face.”
Clinton’s deeply felt connection to Kennedy is hardly unique. Memories of Kennedy’s presidency, from his inaugural address to the horror of Dallas, live on in the American imagination. But they linger particularly with Democrats, and for the past 50 years, generations of them have venerated JFK as their party’s tragic hero. Democrats may have long ago abandoned the Kennedy program, but JFK’s flame flickers elusively in their hearts.
That’s the crux of political scientist Larry Sabato’s new book, The Kennedy Half-Century, a well-reported and lively analysis not only of JFK’s presidency and assassination, but also of his complicated political legacy. By walking us through Kennedy’s evolution in the Democratic firmament, Sabato illuminates how Democrats have been both buoyed and wearied by JFK’s shadow. Democratic presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and even Clinton — have all struggled to endure the Kennedy comparisons and to recapture the magic of Camelot.
“Kennedy had the good luck to govern at the time of peak power for America,” Sabato explains in a phone interview from his office at the University of Virginia. “It was a troubled time in terms of civil rights and some other issues, but, by and large, it was a happy time. Things were moving in the right direction, and then the assassination, it was kind of a rebaptism by blood. Kennedy became a secular saint,” especially to the Democratic base, which has celebrated Kennedy at every convention since 1960.
Sabato also spends several chapters chronicling how Ronald Reagan and other Republicans have cited JFK, usually as a means to undercut the Democrats and claim parts of Kennedy’s legacy, such as his support for tax cuts. But it’s Sabato’s passages on the enthralled (and often not so enthralled) Democrats that provide a fresh account of how and why so many Democratic leaders have been affected by Kennedy.
After moving through JFK’s ascent and carefully analyzing the assassination, Sabato opens his book’s third and final section with Johnson, peeling back Johnson’s pronouncements in the aftermath of Dallas and looking for clues on LBJ’s ambition for his own agenda. In spite of his call to “let us continue,” Sabato writes, Johnson immediately began to chart his own legislative course in late 1963. He may have started with a continuation theme, but the Great Society was in the works. “Now, it’s your show,” said Jack Valenti, an LBJ aide, to the president in early 1964.
But Johnson, perhaps more than any of his Democratic successors, had to tread with caution. He may have been a former Senate majority leader and JFK’s vice president, but that brought little political cover with the country still grieving and many Democrats expecting Johnson to be JFK’s echo. For much of 1964, before Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in November, Kennedy loomed over everything, and Johnson, Sabato writes, struggled at times to deal with Kennedy’s ubiquitous presence, even in death.
Johnson, though, was clever in how he structured his policy goals, first going after Kennedy’s priorities — tax cuts and civil rights — before turning to his broader domestic plans. He quickly passed the Revenue Act of 1964, which cut taxes, and a year later passed the Civil Rights Act. Sabato writes of how Johnson ably played the “legislative emotions” of congressional Democrats and Kennedy’s allies to get what he wanted. His public warmth toward Jackie Kennedy and his decision to keep much of JFK’s cabinet in place were also helpful in casting him as Kennedy’s political heir.
Privately, even as the New Frontier merged with the Great Society, tensions lingered between Johnson and Kennedy World. Sabato, who interviewed the late JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson for his book, writes that much of JFK’s inner circle viewed LBJ “as an interloper and usurper.” Johnson couldn’t stand Robert Kennedy, and he complained constantly that RFK was trying to undermine him. When Kennedy supporters pushed Johnson to put Bobby on the ticket in 1964, he never gave it serious consideration.
Johnson’s balance of the Kennedy legacy — an overt embracing of Kennedy’s “dream,” as LBJ called it, with behind-the-scenes skepticism of the major role Kennedy continued to play in Democratic life — would soon become a Democratic model for presidents and presidential nominees. Johnson used the Kennedy name to push his anti-poverty legislation but was personally exhausted by the Kennedys’ unwillingness to share the Kennedy brand — and, of course, by RFK’s decision to seek the presidency in 1968.
After Johnson, Sabato reviews how Robert Kennedy and his brother, Ted Kennedy, quickly became the shapers of the Kennedy image and its meaning in Democratic politics, hovering over each presidential cycle, not always as top-tier contenders, but as must-watch factors. As JFK became more of a figure elevated to the Democrats’ Mount Rushmore, RFK, and then Ted after RFK’s death, became keepers of the flame.
For Ted Kennedy, that meant a long-term ideological endeavor, and Sabato says Ted, even though he was scarred by Chappaquiddick, came to be as influential as JFK over the years in molding the contours of Kennedy politics, as well as the prism for how his party recalled his brothers. Republicans recognized Ted’s power as much as Democrats did, and Richard Nixon kept a close eye on the young Massachusetts senator.
In the early Seventies, with RFK gone and Ted Kennedy on the sidelines, Sabato shows how the Democratic presidential-nominating process in part became an exercise in carrying on in the Kennedy way, which meant different things to each candidate. From speaking style to haircuts, JFK was a paragon Democratic wannabes had to mimic. Accordingly, JFK was the model for 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. “He was very much a Kennedy person, and he tried to style himself that way,” Sabato says.
Jimmy Carter, however, broke from the tradition, and Sabato says he suffered the consequences — even if he didn’t regret breaking from the Kennedy hold over Democratic politics. In fact, Carter, who sat down with Sabato for an interview, talks at length about how the Kennedys were an annoyance to him more than anything and usually detrimental. “My favorite president in my lifetime was Truman,” he wryly tells Sabato. “Ted Kennedy was a pain in my ass during my last two years in office.”
Even Carter, though furious with Ted Kennedy’s anti-Carter bent, couldn’t rail against the Kennedys too much publicly, so strong was JFK’s memory and popularity with Democrats. He was also the rare Democrat who tried to compete directly with the Kennedy influence rather than succumb to it. Sabato’s trip back to October 1979, when Carter spoke at the opening of JFK’s library, is a revealing example of how Carter worked to combat Teddy Kennedy’s rise by connecting with JFK’s leadership.
“Carter remembers everything,” Sabato chuckles. “It didn’t take long for us to get into Ted Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy’s death has done nothing to remove President Carter’s feelings about Ted Kennedy. He actually had a lot of private meetings with Kennedy, these ‘come to Jesus’ meetings in which he was trying to find out what Ted Kennedy wanted so that he could do deals with him and get him out of the way, get his support in 1980.” Ultimately, though, Carter “realized that all Kennedy wanted was for me to lose.”
The Kennedy strain continued after Ted Kennedy’s loss to Carter in the 1980 Democratic primary. Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic nominee, and Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, used elements of John F. Kennedy’s legacy to pitch voters and improve their standing. But it wasn’t until 1992, when Clinton won the Democratic nomination and the White House, that the Kennedy revival reached its next iteration, with worshipful Baby Boomer Democrats talking, once again, about JFK at nearly every turn.
Sabato ends his look at “the flame eternal” by diving into Clinton’s Kennedy experience as president and concludes that as much as JFK was part of Clinton’s campaign and inspiration, he didn’t do much to influence Clinton’s governing. The same goes for President Obama, who won the endorsement of an ailing Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy and cited JFK during his 2008 race but has infrequently used Kennedy’s policies as a guide.
“I don’t think Democrats still represent Kennedy in policy terms,” Sabato says. “Stylistically, most of the prominent candidates have tried to be another JFK. But they’ve all failed, even Obama. Nobody is another JFK. Obama doesn’t even remember Kennedy. He was an infant while Kennedy was president, and he is the first president not to have a living memory of Kennedy, so it’s stylistic rather than substantive.”
For Democrats, Sabato says, that’s the real Kennedy curse. JFK lives on as their hero, but his family and memory have made debatable marks on the party’s successes, and, at times, contributed to its failures. And from Johnson to Obama, they’ve all had to grapple with it.
Robert Costa is the National Review’s Washington editor.