From the Archives: Commonweal on John F. Kennedy

Fifty Years After Dallas

November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. Commonweal followed, with understandable interest, the career of Kennedy from his time in the U.S. Senate through his shortened term as president, as well as his legacy and the political and legal response to his murder. Through editorials, essays, and articles, the magazine covered Kennedy from a range of vantages and viewpoints. Appearing below are links to (and excerpts from) some featured stories from our archives. 

'Young Senator Kennedy'

In March 1959, the editors of Commonweal collected in a single article “significant excerpts from opinion in the Catholic press on Senator Kennedy’s remarks” regarding the relationship of church and state, as well as the full text of his famous statement to Look magazine ("Senator Kennedy and His Critics" [.pdf]). The compendium includes commentary from America, The Catholic Messenger (of Davenport, Iowa), The Catholic Review (Baltimore), The St. Louis Review, and other publications.

A month later, John Cogley had this to say in "A Catholic for President?" [.pdf] (Cogley himself was later a presidential campaign adviser for Kennedy): 

The day will come when our perennial discussions about whether a Catholic is qualified to be President will seem somewhat primitive. Of that I am convinced. For I am persuaded that the American Constitutional system is so carefully structured that the difficulties propounded in the present controversy are actually meaningless….

John F. Kennedy is no Al Smith. He is much closer to the enduring image of the President than the self-made man who grew up on the East Side of New York, had a scanty parochial school education, and wore a brown derby. Kennedy is the American Catholic arrivé. He attended private schools (none of them Catholic), great secular universities and has a blue-ribbon social background. … The stereotype of the Irish Catholic politician, the pugnacious, priest-ridden representative of an embittered, embattled minority, simply does not fit the poised, urbane, cosmopolitan young socialite from Harvard. 

Days before the election in 1960, associate editor James Finn wrote on the mistaken belief that the candidates for the presidency exhibited no notable differences. From "The Difference to Me" [.pdf]:

By the time election day arrives one of the hardiest myths of the 1960 Presidential campaign—that there are no differences between the candidates—may, mercifully, have been laid to rest. There are already strong signs that it is dying. This article is written to help it on its way. …

A major difference, exists in what may be described as the “style” of the candidates. One gauge of Kennedy’s style is the manner in which he dealt with the religious issue and the way he has buried all discussion about youth and an alleged lack of experience. Kennedy met the questions concerning his religion directly and head-on. All substantive questions that could legitimately be asked he answered unequivocally, and many questions that are irrelevant. After the first T.V. debate between the Vice President and the Senator, only scattered partisans thought there was still some political mileage in stressing Kennedy’s age and his supposed political inexperience. It was all too evident that he spoke with at least equal authority and that he had an impressive grasp of facts, figures and sundry details. His major fault may well have been that he appealed too little to the emotions.

Nixon, on the other hand, has a quite recognizable and effective style. The “Checkers” speech remains the classic example, but almost any major address will do. Facts and sound information are employed, but they are all too often left behind in a blatant appeal to emotions. In itself this is not necessarily harmful; unfortunately, however, the emotional appeal frequently has little to do with any political issue. 

A Catholic in the Highest Office

On November 18, 1960, Commonweal's editors penned their first editorial on the Kennedy presidency, "After the Election" [.pdf], in which they laid out their expectations for the new president-elect:

Even while we seek to extend the rights of democracy at home—where we fall noticeably short of the ideal—we must proclaim the ideals of democracy abroad. We must assert and teach that democracy is theoretically and practically superior to Communism and will survive. We must extend our help and influence to the new, revolutionary and untried countries without incurring charges of exploitation and colonialism. We must strengthen those ties which bind us to our Latin neighbors. We must work unceasingly for peace without relinquishing our strongest deterrent—the ability to wage war on at least equal terms. …There is no quarter of the globe that does not feel our influence. We must strive to see that such influence is beneficial and is regarded as beneficial.

James O'Gara, early in 1961, considered the idea of a Catholic president in his reflection, "A Catholic in the White House" [.pdf]:

[This] is why the inauguration of John F. Kennedy was so important to me, as an American and a Catholic. To emerge from second-class citizenship is no small thing: yet I think that is what we have done. And if this event is a memorable one for Catholics, it must be counted even more as a victory for the American idea.

But how strong a victory? Here are the editors writing in 1962, commenting that even after the election would seem to have made the president's religion a "thoroughly dead" issue, there were still "far too many evaluations of the President's conduct as a Catholic during his first year in office," from Catholics and non-Catholics alike [.pdf]:

It comes at least to a simple requirement in charity that we cease reading unworthy motives into the President's positions. Criticism, yes; mind-reading and soul-searching, no. ... The President has given neither Protestants nor Catholics grounds for special praise or blame. We commend him for it. 

Death of a President

In the aftermath of the assassination, Commonweal's editors tried to envision Kennedy's legacy even as they tried to make sense of his murder and what it might say about the United States. Articles included a December 1963 editorial on the assassination, a remembrance from Walter Dean Burnham, and, later that year, remarks on the release of the Warren Commission findings.

"It is still not easy, days after the horribly well-aimed shots, to explain why the nation has been so moved by the assassination of John F. Kennedy," the editors wrote in December 1963 [.pdf]:

[I]t is perfectly understandable that many in Washington should still feel a sense of emptiness. That is particularly true of those younger men who came to Washington filled with zest and drive, animated by the aura of youth and vigor which Mr. Kennedy projected so well. But life has to go on; and it will and must go on under the guidance of President Johnson.

In the same month, in "Death of the President" [.pdf] the editors wrote this:

But now the violence and hatred that the President strove so hard to control have struck him down, and we grieve not only for him but for the nation, and for the possibility that his murder was not an isolated act, but rather an expression of the irrational forces eating their way into American life.

Ominous signs of these forces and emotions have grown around us. The repeated threats against the life of Kennedy, Stevenson and Warren; the suggestion by one editor, made jokingly he says, that Warren should not be impeached but hanged; the recent comment by a bitter columnist that one of his lifelong regrets is that the man who tried to kill Roosevelt in 1932 wasn't a better shot; the near assault on Lyndon Johnson by a Texas mob three years ago; the attack on Stevenson in Dallas only last month; the murders of the Birmingham children, the Baltimore postman and Medgar Evers, and the astonishing moral blindness that they illuminated. (One national magazine subtly suggested that the postman's murder might have been warranted because he was allegedly carrying an anti-Christian placard.)

Later that month, Walter Dean Burnham wrote [.pdf] that "as the President's assassination reminded us... individuals make a profound difference in human affairs":

How poignantly that lesson has been etched in our consciousness now! All previous calculations of the future, especially the near and political future, have been swept into oblivion by an assassin's bullet. That bullet killed far more than the physical body of John F. Kennedy. 

In January 1964, Joseph F. Menez took up the matter of succession: "Three crucial questions are inseparably linked," he wrote: "The method of nominating the Vice President, the Succession Act of 1947, and what constitutes Presidential "disability" [.pdf].

The Vice Presidency can be said to have emerged from oblivion. This is true not only because the Vice President can succeed to the Presidency -- as eight have in our history -- but also because the Vice President is sorely needed by the President to lessen the strain of the toughest job in the world. Since 1949 ... when Congress made the Vice President a statutory member of the National Security Council ... the Vice President has played an increasing role in the formation of policy. The success of this development paid off in the smoothness with which President Johnson assumed office, a contrast with the confusion when Truman became President in 1945. Mr. Truman, who did not learn about the existence of the Atomic Bomb until sometime after taking the oath of office, described his accession this way: "[L]ast night the whole weight of the moon and stars fell on me." 

And later that year, the editors commented on the release of the Warren Report: "If one wants the truth about man's capacity for revolting crimes and how our system fertilizes the ground for assassination, the Warren Report does not provide it" [.pdf]:

The nation knows better what it knew all along -- that a deranged man can do deranged things... The nation also knows that hatred combined with violence can lead to disastrous results. But if the people did not know that before the assassination, they are not likely to know it much better now; anyway, men forget. The consistent thing about Original Sin is that it is so unimaginative, ever satisfied with repeating itself. President Kennedy tried to establish a new frontier. What he needed, but was not given, was a new humanity.

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