During his short time in office, former President John F. Kennedy tackled some of the country’s biggest issues of the mid-20th century, from civil rights to the Cold War. But while many have compared his presidency to Camelot, in which goodness prevailed, that isn’t the whole story.
Texas-based historian Mark K. Updegrove dove into the Camelot myth in his new book “Incomparable Grace: JFK and the Presidency,” to paint a more realistic portrait of Kennedy with all his foibles and flaws, as well as his “great potential.” Updegrove is the president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and is the presidential historian for ABC News.
Listen to a web-exclusive extended interview with Updegrove in the audio player above to hear how he believes Kennedy would have dealt with the war in Vietnam had he not been assassinated.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Why did you decide to write a book on JFK? And what about his presidency did you want to focus on most?
Mark Updegrove: I really want to do a brisk take that shows you all the ups and downs and triumphs and tragedies and turbulence of the Kennedy administration, and what his leadership does at important moments; why it makes a difference. I also wanted to cut through the “Camelot” myth and show Kennedy with all his blemishes, all his foibles, all his flaws, as well as his great potential.
You write about JFK’s policy and military mistakes. How did missteps affect JFK’s presidency, and would you say they defined it in some ways?
There’s a great anecdote in the beginning of the book where Kennedy comes back from his inaugural galas in the wee hours of Jan. 21, 1961, and he crawls back into the White House and the presidential bedroom is being renovated. So he, instead, sleeps in the Lincoln bedroom and in the Lincoln bed. And a reporter asks him the next morning what it was like to sleep in the Lincoln bed, and and JFK says, “I just jumped in and hung on.”
That’s really what defines his presidency in the early days: he just jumped in and hung on. And while he had an enormous blunder with the Bay of Pigs, a disastrous summit with Nikita Khrushchev, he hung on and resolved to do better. He doubled down on his presidency and the American people doubled down on him at that moment. He had his highest approval rating the worst moment of his presidency – an 83% approval rating. Only 5% thought that he was doing a poor job as president.
During his presidency, the nation was dealing with inflation. What was the cause and what was Kennedy’s response?
The cause was the steel companies, U.S. Steel, which was the biggest steel company in the United States. The third-largest industry in the United States had promised, through a negotiation that the White House was involved in, not to raise steel prices, which Kennedy believed would have an inflationary effect on the economy. But Roger Blough, the president of U.S. Steel, [reneged] on that promise just 48 hours after making it.
John F. Kennedy is absolutely apoplectic, and he uses all of the tools at his disposal, including the bully pulpit of the presidency, to get Roger Blough to back down, which ultimately he does just two days after making the claim that they are, in fact, going to raise steel prices. Kennedy has put forth this, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country ideal. And he says that U.S. Steel making that very avaricious move will put the country off balance, economically. And by God, he’s not going to let it happen.
Kennedy initially had a tepid response to the civil rights movement. What changed that brought him around to propose the Civil Rights Act?
The majority of Americans didn’t see the urgency in pushing civil rights, and neither did John F. Kennedy, who was far more interested in foreign policy, and saw the civil rights movement’s exposure to the ravages of racial prejudice as tarnishing America’s image abroad as we battled for moral high ground in in the Cold War. So Kennedy, in the initial years of his presidency, didn’t act on civil rights as much as he reacted.
But that changed in the spring of 1963 with the civil rights campaign led by Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama – the most segregated city in the United States at that time. Part and parcel of that was their very segregationist Gov. George Wallace, standing in the doorway of an administration building on the campus of the University of Alabama, preventing the integration of that institution. And at that point, John F. Kennedy has had enough. So he decides very spontaneously to make a speech on civil rights and he doesn’t have enough time to to have his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, do a planned set of remarks.
Sorensen writes part of the speech, but not all of it. Bobby Kennedy implores his brother to go on national television and to speak from his heart. So the speech that that John Kennedy gives in June of 1963 is largely extemporaneous. And he elevates the civil rights movement to a different level by calling it a “moral issue.”
You talk about how in his first year or so, he was very much learning on the job. So how might Kennedy have been as a leader tackling the tribulations our nation faces today?
The one thing that we know about Kennedy is that he gets us believing in ourselves. So when Kennedy dies just a year later, our faith in government is at an all-time high of 77%. We believed in government. So there was this high tide of liberalism that comes as a result of the hope and the optimism that Kennedy exudes. And I think that would probably translate well into the media of today – to some degree, social media, in particular, getting fragments of speeches that Kennedy might give in 21st-century America.
However, media would also be his undoing, to a large extent. There were only three television networks, television being, of course, the dominant medium of the time when Kennedy was president. There was ABC, CBS and NBC. There was far more centrism as it related to our news coverage. The fragmentation and proliferation of media has meant that we are in echo chambers where it’s easy to vilify somebody. And we’re getting so much of our news from social media where we’re listening to people who think like we do. So it would be really hard for even as alluring and captivating a figure like John F. Kennedy to break through.