This article is the second in a series of articles commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy.
The Kennedy presidency was not without its challenges, perhaps the greatest being the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The administration had previously been dealt a severe blow with the failed April 1961 invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. In 1963 Kennedy, as many presidents in their first term, was working and campaigning toward his reelection. As Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s advisor and primary speechwriter, notes, “His trip to Texas, like his mission in life, was a journey of reconciliation—to harmonize the warring factions of Texas Democrats, to dispel the myths of the right wing in one of its strongest citadels, and to broaden the base for his own re-election in 1964.”
Reelection was far from Kennedy’s only concern in 1963. Robert Dallek, a leading historian and author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kenned,y 1917–1963,states that “by October 1963, Kennedy had established the sort of rapport with the public that had made Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Truman in 1948, and Ike so popular.” Kennedy had made great strides in foreign relations by signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between Russia, England, and the United States. In a speech at the University of Maine, he stated, “While maintaining our readiness for war, let us exhaust, every avenue of peace. . . . Let us always make clear both our willingness to talk, if talk will help, and our readiness to fight, if fight we must.”
In 1963, Kennedy was also trying get a civil rights bill passed. Unfortunately, Congress was divided over the bill with twenty-eight undecided senators and only a few months left in the congressional session for Kennedy to persuade them to change their minds. Kennedy understood that this bill could cost him the next election but was nonetheless committed to its passage. In the Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., King states, “the spirit behind the ensuing march caused [President Kennedy] to become a strong ally on its execution . . . characterized by a generous and handsome new interest not only in seeing the march take place but in the hope that it would have a solid impact on Congress.” The House finally passed a compromise bill on October 23, but the Civil Rights Act would not be signed until July 2, 1964.
November was a campaigning month; the president traveled to Florida, Maine, and—with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson—heavily Republican Texas to gain support for his reelection. Kennedy spent the morning of Friday, November 22, 1963, making speeches in the Fort Worth and Dallas metropolitan area. Despite the inclement weather and the constant traveling, Kennedy remained committed to reaching as many people as possible. When the skies cleared over Dallas, the president’s entourage was able to take advantage of the weather and ride in open- topped limousines. Ultimately, the president and Mrs. Kennedy had plans to spend that Friday night at Johnson’s ranch. However, the smaller plans, the agenda for the president’s reelection campaign, and all other initiatives of the Kennedy presidency would be tragically unfulfilled.
—Alana Donocoff, Intern, Catalog of American Portraits
Image: John F. Kennedy by Shirley Seltzer Cooper / Pastel, 1961
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Ted Cooper
Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (New York: Back Bay Books, 2003)
John F. Kennedy, “Address at the University of Maine,” October 19, 1963, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9483
Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998)
Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965)
“Kennedy Ratifies Test Ban Treaty,” New York Times, October 8, 1963.
“White House Calls Jaunt ‘Nonpolitical,’” Washington Post, Times Herald, November 20, 1963.