The Ghost of JFK Hangs Over this Election

News at Home




Mr. Ayton is the author of The JFK Assassination: Dispelling The Myths (2002) and Questions of Controversy: The Kennedy Brothers (2001). Click here for his website.

In a February 1971 Esquire magazine article entitled, "The Ghost Of Charisma Past," a photograph of a young John F. Kerry sits alongside that of the martyred JFK and other up and coming politicians - Jimmy Carter, newly-elected Governor of Georgia, Congressman Paul "Pete" McCloskey, Senator John Tunney, Congressman Donald W. Riegle and New York Mayor John V. Lindsay.

According to the magazine, these men were the present day politicians who best exemplified, together with the president's younger brother Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the "Kennedy Style. " Esquire said McClosky was "…often compared to his political idol John F. Kennedy. John Lindsay, Esquire readers were told, was viewed by U.S. youth as "another JFK." Governor Jimmy Carter was described as "looking eerily like JFK from certain angles." Reigle "talks a lot about the Kennedys." And Tunney "parallels the Kennedys - he is tall, handsome, athletic.". The magazine captioned Kerry's photo, "out of Massachussetts has come a new JFK…with 'charisma' and political aspirations."

Esquire, however, added a note of caution when the magazine quoted JFK author William Manchester. "President Kennedy was original," Manchester told the magazine's writer, "He can not be duplicated. Comparing other men to him does not flatter them, it merely suggests a lack of individuality in them."

Nevertheless, as the following three decades were to prove, the "ghost of JFK" was not only used to compare and contrast leading politicians in the contemporary political arena but the "Kennedy personae and style" was eagerly embraced by them. As the legend progressed many recognised that the thirty-fifth president had a remarkable hold on the imagination of the American people. For many he was the last president of the modern era who epitomized optimism and idealism -- at least until the election of Ronald Reagan. Politicians were also aware that the American public had never come to terms with the loss of their thirty-fifth president in November 1963. Essentially, they were looking for a replacement.

The first presidential candidate to take advantage of the Kennedy style and legacy was the president's younger brother, Bobby. During his campaign for the 1968 Democratic Party nomination for president RFK emulated his brother's gestures, frequently made reference to JFK's presidential successes and he had the added advantage of a family resemblance. Following RFK's assassination, Ted Kennedy received the mantle of expectations from the Court of Kennedy. However, there was too much pressure on him by Kennedy advisers who hoped to resurrect Camelot. Ted knew he was too immature to accept the leadership of the Democratic Party at the 1968 convention. There had been a genuine draft effort by party bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley but in his heart the last of the Kennedy brothers knew his youth, inexperience and responsibilities to his brothers' families would make it too difficult an enterprise. A year following Bobby's death Ted's immaturity had been confirmed during the Chappaquiddick incident.

When Kennedy took himself out of the 1972 presidential sweepstakes politicians of varying ideologies saw their chance to capture the "Kennedy mystique." Lindsay and McCloskey eventually failed in their efforts when their primary campaigns ran out of steam. The Republican McClosky never really had a chance in toppling the popular pre-Watergate Richard Nixon and John Lindsay had been eclipsed by the Lincolnesque Edmund Muskie. For the Democrats a Kennedy connection in the form of George McGovern (a Robert Kennedy supporter in 1968) was more successful. McGovern used every opportunity to tell voters he was the examplar of RFK's political legacy . McGovern captured the Democratic Party's nomination in part because of his Kennedy connection, but he soon ran into trouble when it was revealed that his selection as the Democrats' vice-presidential candidate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, had undergone psychiatric treatment some years before. McGovern offered the Democratic vice-presidential candidacy to Edward Kennedy. When Kennedy declined the offer McGovern enlisted a Kennedy family member, Sargent Shriver, to be his running mate. They both lost, however, to the Nixon-Agnew ticket.

When Ted Kennedy announced he would not run for president in the 1976 elections it created a stir amongst prospective candidates eager and willing to use the Kennedy style to secure their party's nomination. Two candidates during this election year were nominated by the media as possessing the Kennedy Style and looks - Senator Frank Church, who had chaired an important Senate committee investigating the illegal activities of the CIA - and Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter. Church's candidacy never really took off. His speaking style was uninspired and he was often accused of trying too hard to emulate President Kennedy. Carter's style, reminiscent of Kennedy but not affected, was more appealing to voters nationally. He was a modern Southern governor who embraced Civil Rights and had youthful appeal. The media aided in Carter's campaign by publicizing those aspects of Carter's style that were reminiscent of JFK -- Carter in a rocking chair, his ever-present smile and his speaking style with lofty appeals to a presidency centered around human rights. The candidate told voters his goal was to inspire the nation in the manner of JFK who brought the nation together "in a new spirit of optimism." Carter also knew that image is the reality and was aware that the comparisons to JFK would be beneficial in his presidential campaign.

The electorate had high expectations for this Southerner with the Kennedy Style but he was eventually to disappoint as his presidency lost its way. Carter was challenged by Senator Edward Kennedy in the Democratic primary elections of 1980. Hoping to bring back the glory days of Camelot, Kennedy nearly secured the nomination by eventually embracing his brothers' liberal agenda, but his efforts failed after the American people rallied around the president during the initial stages of the Iranian hostage crisis. However, voters were looking for a candidate to bring them out of the doldrums of the Carter years and the president lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan.

The ghost of JFK did not dissipate with Edward Kennedy's failure to secure the 1980 Democratic Party nomination, however. In 1984 Senator Gary Hart embraced the Kennedy style in his attempt to wrest the Democratic Party nomination from former Vice-President Walter Mondale. Hart's youthful, energetic and intellectual style, were reminiscent of JFK and his advisers admitted he made efforts to copy JFK's gestures and inspirational rhetoric. Hart could not compete with Mondale's superior ability in harnessing the resources of the Democratic National Party. Accordingly, the young senator failed to secure the Democratic nomination but looked to 1988 as the year when his presidential ambitions would bear fruit. Hart was popular with voters but his campaign was eventually derailed when the media publicized his affair with a model.

Michael Dukakis, who went on to defeat the other prospective Democratic candidates, won the nomination. The Massachussetts governor freely admitted he had tried to link his campaign with the Kennedy myth which is one of the reasons why he selected Texas Senator Loyd Bentson as his running mate. It reminded voters of the 1960 Austin-Boston axis, when the liberal Massachssetts Senator John F Kennedy chose a conservative Southerner, Lyndon Johnson, to balance the ticket. Dukakis also believed he best exemplified the Kennedy political style - duty integrity and confidence - and said hoped to complete the promise of the JFK presidency.

By the late 1980s Edward Kennedy had made it clear that his heart was not in the race for the presidency and he thus abandoned any possibility of attaining the goal which had eluded him in the 1980 campaign. The way became clear for yet another presidential aspirant who could utilize the Kennedy style and it came in the form of Arkansas Governor William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton was a Kennedy afficiando, held the thirty-fifth president in high esteem and reminded voters that he had met the president when he visited the White House as a young sixteen year old in 1963. During Clinton's pursuit of the presidency in 1992 his campaign officials took every opportunity to present the candidate as the new Kennedy for the 90s. Following his success in the Democratic primary elections Clinton made the Kennedy family a central feature of the Democratic National Convention.

The Republicans were not averse to using the Kennedy mystique in their efforts to win the presidency. During the Republican primary campaigns of 1996 Congressman Jack Kemp was frequently compared to JFK. A strong speaker with a slight physical resemblance to JFK, Kemp was selected by Bob Dole as his presidential running mate. Dole lost to the Kennedyesque Clinton.

Like Bill Clinton, John Kerry was inspired to enter politics by JFK's example. To Kerry and Clinton the JFK presidency was a time when the best of American ideals of strength, optimism, fairness and compassion came to the fore. Kerry wanted to be like his hero when he joined the U.S. Navy and he also emulated the young president when he volunteered for the Navy's Swift Boats. During Kerry's campaign for the 2004 Democratic nomination commentators were struck by the way in which he had paralleled RFK's 1968 agenda to further his prospects, reminding voters at every opportunity that he had a mission to end a misguided war and returning real compassion to America's domestic politics.

However, if John F. Kerry wins the presidency this November there may be many wondering how he did it. During the primary campaigns he was accused of adopting a heavy speaking style often presenting issues in a convoluted and long-winded way. But for those who have followed presidential elections since the 1960s there is no secret of why Kerry has succeeded against all expectations. Not only has this presidential candidate the luck to have a name eerily similar to the late President Kennedy (as well as the famous initials), he has managed to capture the Kennedy style in his debating techniques with George Bush, has reminded voters of JFK with his deep Boston accent and has exhorted voters Kennedy style to "get the country moving again." Contrast Nixon and Kennedy during the 1960 campaign and it is no wonder Kerry's cool image, his adoption of Kennedy mannerisms and countenance during the debates reminded older voters of the ghost of JFK.



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Mel Ayton - 11/10/2004

There is no evidence whatsoever that Edward Kennedy had been guilty of vehicular homicide, a charge that is, arguably, as reckless as EMK's short car journey.There is little doubt Kennedy had consumed some alcoholic beverages prior to the accident but in the context of the times it was not an uncommon act.In fact it was practically 'de riguer' for most American males in the 60s. Reckless? - perhaps - criminal? - no.There is also no evidence that Kennedy was 'over the limit'.

James Lange,(co-author of 'Chappaquiddick-The Real Story' 1992) who is an expert in drink-driving cases, has stated that Kennedy could not have been tried for serious offences like vehicular manslaughter or worse.Lange even ventures that the sworn testimony of two doctors could have been used to clear Kennedy of the offence he was eventually charged with - leaving the scene of an accident.

Whatever views people hold about JFK's morals it cannot be denied that he was an inspirational president - Carter and Clinton do not come anywhere near, according to most opinion polls.It is the view held by the majority of US historians whether they are on the left or the right.

The point of my article was not to praise or demean any politician who adopted the JFK 'mystique' but simply to show how presidential candidates over the years, including John Kerry, have benifitted from the Kennedy style of politics.

Myths surrounding the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe, like conspiracy theories about the death of JFK, seem to have acquired a life of their own irrespective of any factual and established evidence proving their claims.They have been dependent on speculation and rumor - as acclaimed author Donald Spoto discovered.Spoto established that the Hollwood actress did indeed have a fleeting sexual affair with JFK - they met six times over a period of years.There is no evidence whatsoever that RFK had an affair with Monroe and any writer who claims otherwise simply cannot provide the proof.History is about facts not gossip.


John Brennan - 11/2/2004

Wow. What a bunch of frippery.

Ayton states that

"A year following Bobby's death Ted's immaturity had been confirmed during the Chappaquiddick incident."

Actually, what was confirmed was the essential Kennedy criminality. Vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a crime, making false statements to an officer of the law, obsruction of justice, and on an on. Immaturity? No, Kennedyesque. The one thing that the Kennedy's learned well from their father was how to be lawless criminals. Ask the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.

With respect to Carter, he wrote that

"The electorate had high expectations for this Southerner with the Kennedy Style but he was eventually to disappoint as his presidency lost its way."

Eventual to disappoint? No. Worse presidential decision-making in U.S. history? Yes. Carter's flacid endorsement of human rights as the cornerstone of American foreign policy left our nation prostrate to the forceful evils or our enemies. The "inordinate fear of communism"--which he eschewed--was eminently wise. His supine position betrayed weakness to the Russian Bear and led communists to believe that they were the future. Communism was on the march in the late 1970's thanks to Jimmy Carter. No other president has endangered the existence of our nation as much as Jimmy Carter. Bank on that one. Go read to foreign policy pronouncments of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan for further insights.

As for Ayton's views on Clinton, well he missed his big chance. Clinton was exactly like Kennedy. Clinton's penchant for cheap whores mirrored that of his hero, JFK. Once again the White House was ground zero for the debased sluttery of Camelot--trailer park style. Oh to dream again.


John Brennan - 11/2/2004

Wow. What a bunch of frippery.

Ayton states that

"A year following Bobby's death Ted's immaturity had been confirmed during the Chappaquiddick incident."

Actually, what was confirmed was the essential Kennedy criminality. Vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a crime, making false statements to an officer of the law, obsruction of justice, and on an on. Immaturity? No, Kennedyesque. The one thing that the Kennedy's learned well from their father was how to be lawless criminals. Ask the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.

With respect to Carter, he wrote that

"The electorate had high expectations for this Southerner with the Kennedy Style but he was eventually to disappoint as his presidency lost its way."

Eventual to disappoint? No. Worse presidential decision-making in U.S. history? Yes. Carter's flacid endorsement of human rights as the cornerstone of American foreign policy left our nation prostrate to the forceful evils or our enemies. The "inordinate fear of communism"--which he eschewed--was eminently wise. His supine position betrayed weakness to the Russian Bear and led communists to believe that they were the future. Communism was on the march in the late 1970's thanks to Jimmy Carter. No other president has endangered the existence of our nation as much as Jimmy Carter. Bank on that one. Go read to foreign policy pronouncments of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan for further insights.

As for Ayton's views on Clinton, well he missed his big chance. Clinton was exactly like Kennedy. Clinton's penchant for cheap whores mirrored that of his hero, JFK. Once again the White House was ground zero for the debased sluttery of Camelot--trailer park style. Oh to dream again.


Vernon Clayson - 11/1/2004

Mr. Ayton, you really had to stretch your imagination to compare John Kerry to JFK, personally I envision Kerry more as a Frankenstein monster in manner and countenance, based on the leaden gestures, a Herman Munster profile and a loud and threatening voice. JFK and Clinton were both celebrity presidents, mediocre in comparison to even our less well known presidents and Jimmy Carter actually rates above JFK and Clinton, especially in morals, sincerity and honesty.