John F. Kennedy's presidency was short — ending abruptly with the tragedy of his assassination in November 1963 — but it has proved indelible in the minds of Americans. Public opinion polls ranking presidents consistently list Kennedy near the top. A 2011 Gallup poll named Kennedy as the fourth greatest president of all time, and 74 percent of Americans approved of his presidency in a 2011 Public Policy Polling group survey, to name a few.
A new book, "JFK: A Vision For America," speaks to what has made Kennedy such an unforgettable figure: his powerful, optimistic speeches, reassuring a nation anxious over escalating Cold War tensions, and his effortless glamour, projecting the image of a young, vital America ready to take on the world.
In that vein, the book — compiled by historian Douglas Brinkley and Kennedy's nephew, Stephen Kennedy Smith — is a collection of the president's historic speeches, including commentary and hundreds of documentary photos. Brinkley and Kennedy Smith stopped by Boston Public Radio to discuss the book and Kennedy's legacy, 100 years after his birth. A partial transcript follows.
JIM BRAUDE: Your mother was John F. Kennedy's sister. How much more complicated does that make [this project] for you? It's not just a project about a major historical figure of the 20th century.
STEPHEN KENNEDY SMITH: I have to tell you that reading some of these commentaries by people as they came in actually made me cry. Even if I wasn't a member of the Kennedy family, the reason I really did the book is because, during the campaign, I read a speech that he gave at Amherst where he said: "Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls that strength matters even more" and "The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to democracy, but the men who criticize power make an equally indispensable contribution." I thought, 'this needs to come to the attention of the country.'
BRAUDE: Douglas Brinkley, I'm watching you the other night calling Donald Trump a tyrant, or whatever it was. You can't read a page of this book, even if you try, or read a speech that was so elegant, with every sentence perfect and enlightened and inspirational, and not step back and think, "Donald Trump." Is that unfair to you two and the book, or is that the reality of the world in 2017?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: I think it's the reality of the world. The contrast between Kennedy and Trump could not be greater. I mean, John F. Kennedy's whole MO was American identity, of finding a common American cause — one of them being going to the moon by the end of the decade, which became a completely bipartisan effort. I mean, we ponied up billions to do it as a unifying factor — 'let's beat the Soviet Union to space.' When you look at Trump, you see his reckless language, his lack of using proper oratory to uplift people. He has, really, no sense of history. JFK was a constant reader of history, and a writer. It used to be said you couldn't find John F. Kennedy not reading a book, even at a pub or at a beach. He always had a book with him.
I got to talk to Donald Trump, and he told me he'd never read a book of American history before. I tried to help him, I said "Well, Mr. Trump, maybe when you were young you read a childhood book about Lincoln or something." He said, "Nope. I don't do that. That's what you guys do—not me."
The contrast between Kennedy and Trump could not be greater.
BRAUDE: Alan Brinkley wrote a piece in The Atlantic which had an interesting fact ... that JFK has been much more popular with the public in these intervening years than he has been with historians in terms of rankings. The factoid Brinkley had in there is [Kennedy] got 49 percent of the vote, yet three years later 59 percent of people said they voted for him, and after he died, 65 percent of people said they voted for him. Why the divide?
BRINKLEY: I wrote a biography of Rosa Parks, and I spent time in Montgomery, Ala. and I met and interviewed around 38 people who were "on the bus" with Rosa Parks. But there were only eight people on the bus. So out of the 38, 30 had to be lying! ... Once John F. Kennedy became an icon they said 'oh yeah, I voted Kennedy!" and they forgot. I was more stunned to see after John F. Kennedy's first 100 days he had something like 73 percent public approval rating. That came out of a tense election in 1960 with Richard Nixon ...
The public loves John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. They put them very high. Scholars put them high, but lower ... Scholars just criterion, relationship with Congress, moral authority, commander in chief, we break it down into so many categories to do analysis.
He watched Churchill speak. He also saw Hitler speak. So he understood the power of oratory to bring out the best or the worst in people.
EAGAN: I did not know that John F. Kennedy signed a bill to create the Cape Cod National Seashore, which is now under some threat ... But tell us about some of the other things people may not have known about that you talk about in this book.
KENNEDY SMITH: I didn't realize he was an active working journalist. He wrote articles for the Hearst newspapers and covered the U.N. convention in 1948. I also didn't realize that he actually conceived of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. He and [adviser Arthur Schlessinger] and his other advisers were reading about the power of markets and the way they would make the individual feel alienated and not really in touch with their creative abilities, and they wanted to counterweight the power of the market and what they thought were the disorienting effects of the rise of technology and mass consumerism by creating an entity that would foster connection through the arts. They had this kind of really visionary, I think, thinking about where the future was going and how they wanted to build public institutions to support democracy.
EAGAN: Of course [Kennedy] was in the war. I wonder, when you look at presidents, how much has being in wars and serving in the military mattered in terms of how they operate as chief executives?
BRINKLEY: What JFK had going for him was like Theodore Roosevelt: they were from wealthy families and could have found a way out of their wars ... John F. Kennedy, who had every reason to get a deferment in World War II — he had a horrible back problem, to put it mildly — decided he had to work to sneak his way to get in. He wanted to see combat, and he got to lead that PT 109. That military service made you a leader among men. It became a great equalizer. When you're seeing people die, your friends killed, what your bank book is or what college you went to scarcely matters. I think he came out of the World War II experience feeling that he was something better than just the child of a wealthy family, that he was a regular American citizen.
KENNEDY SMITH: I have a letter on my wall which my mother [Jean Kennedy Smith] gave me, which is a letter from President Kennedy to my grandfather. They were writing under an alias about his back problems, because he didn't want the censors to know. He might have been pulled out of the PT command.
I also have another letter, [about] the Battle of Britain speech, signed by Winston Churchill. Churchill was Kennedy's hero as an orator. He watched Churchill speak. He also saw Hitler speak. So he understood the power of oratory to bring out the best or the worst in people. My mother has told me that the war experience changed him as a person, and really galvanized him to a life in politics. Of course, he wasn't a natural public speaker. He was sickly as a child. But in '46, he runs in Cambridge and then he just works like crazy from then on to be president.
Click the audio player above to hear the full interview with Douglas Brinkley and Stephen Kennedy Smith.