|John & Robert - photo by Hank Walker 1960|
John Kennedy inspired me. I joined the Peace Corps. His murdered brother Robert continued to inspire - embracing the cause of Cesar Chavez to unionize California's farmworkers. Their memory still inspires me. - GWC
by Robert Dallek
Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.
Kennedy saw the presidency as the vital center of government, and a president’s primary goal as galvanizing commitments to constructive change. He aimed to move the country and the world toward a more peaceful future, not just through legislation but through inspiration.
Kennedy’s presidential ambitions rested on his understanding of what Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and F.D.R. had done. Like them, he relied on the spoken word, but he had the advantage of television in reaching millions of people around the globe. And like those predecessors, he saw the need for actions that gave meaning to his rhetoric.
The requests in his Inaugural Address — for Americans to put their country ahead of their selfish concerns and to peoples everywhere to join in a new quest for peace — found substance in the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. His call in May 1961 for a manned mission to the Moon and his “peace speech” in June 1963 urging Americans to re-examine their attitude toward the Soviet Union were aimed at promoting national unity and international accord.
Compared with other recent presidents whose stumbles and failures have assaulted the national self-esteem, memories of Kennedy continue to give the country faith that its better days are ahead. That’s been reason enough to discount his limitations and remain enamored of his presidential performance.
Robert Dallek is a professor emeritus in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author, most recently, of “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.”