By Frank Rich
The New York Times
BEFORE John F. Kennedy was a president, a legend, a myth and a poltergeist stalking America’s 2008 campaign, he was an upstart contender seen as a risky bet for the Democratic nomination in 1960.Photo Credit: WataugaWatch
Kennedy was judged “an ambitious but superficial playboy” by his liberal peers, according to his biographer Robert Dallek. “He never said a word of importance in the Senate, and he never did a thing,” in the authoritative estimation of the Senate’s master, Lyndon Johnson. Adlai Stevenson didn’t much like Kennedy, and neither did Harry Truman, who instead supported Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri.
J. F. K. had few policy prescriptions beyond Democratic boilerplate (a higher minimum wage, “comprehensive housing legislation”). As his speechwriter Richard Goodwin recalled in his riveting 1988 memoir “Remembering America,” Kennedy’s main task was to prove his political viability. He had to persuade his party that he was not a wealthy dilettante and not “too young, too inexperienced and, above all, too Catholic” to be president.
How did the fairy-tale prince from Camelot vanquish a field of heavyweights led by the longtime liberal warrior Hubert Humphrey? It wasn’t ideas. It certainly wasn’t experience. It wasn’t even the charisma that Kennedy would show off in that fall’s televised duels with Richard Nixon.
Looking back almost 30 years later, Mr. Goodwin summed it up this way: “He had to touch the secret fears and ambivalent longings of the American heart, divine and speak to the desires of a swiftly changing nation — his message grounded on his own intuition of some vague and spreading desire for national renewal.”
In other words, Kennedy needed two things. He needed poetry, and he needed a country with some desire, however vague, for change....