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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 15:19 GMT
Kennedy: The enduring allure
Veteran BBC correspondent Charles Wheeler looks at why a younger generation is still fascinated by the story of John F Kennedy.

When the BBC asked me to help make a documentary for the 40th anniversary of President John F Kennedy's death I was tempted to suggest repeating a Newsnight special I had written for the 20th anniversary in 1983.

Kennedy with his wife Jackie and daughter Caroline
Glamour was part of Kennedy's appeal
Apart from all those revelations about Kennedy's energetic sex life - which struck me as profoundly boring - what's new?

Second thoughts were more positive. If the people who commission these programmes today, all too young to remember the 60s, find the Kennedy story intriguing, why not ask why?

What did he have that made him - and still makes him - I'm groping for the right word here: attractive, exceptional? Was it his good looks and vitality? Jackie? The kids, playing hide and seek under the Oval Office desk?

Yes, glamour was part of it. Coming after the fatherly Eisenhower, who whiled away his later White House years playing golf, it did seem a new age. And the way his life was cut short in Dallas is part of it too.

Missile crisis

I have always felt that the character of American presidents matters as much to us outsiders as it does to the Americans who elect them. Take Franklin D. Roosevelt.

What he did and did not do in the 1940s kept us on edge because it was crucial to our survival.

I almost lost it, my throat choked a little bit, I had a little tear in my eye, I didn't cry, tears weren't rolling down my cheeks exactly and I didn't lose my voice, I recovered from it fairly quickly. But I'm not at all ashamed of that
Walter Cronkite, veteran news presenter

Take Kennedy and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis. He was a president who thought ahead, listened to his aides, knew what advice to reject and averted a nuclear war.

So what was it that makes John Kennedy stand taller than his successors? First, I think, the complete absence from his makeup of dogma, of ideology.

He had the courage of his convictions and a subtle, inquiring mind.

True, he could be inconsistent. Before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of West Berliners in 1963, minutes after he had seen the Wall for himself, Kennedy launched a harsh attack on Communism.

"There are some who say Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin!

There are some who say we can work with the Communists. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen! Let them come to Berlin!"

This was the Kennedy who, less than three weeks before in a speech at a university in Washington, had appealed to Americans to re-examine their attitude to the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

"No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Kennedy's university speech was largely unreported and is seldom remembered today. He ended it with a prediction.

"History teaches us that enmities between nations do not last forever; the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations."

It came true, a quarter of a century later. Above all, Kennedy was a man ahead of his time.

Below, contemporary media, political and academic figures talk about Kennedy's legacy and the day he died

Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense, 1961-1968

"I don't believe in your country or in our country the average citizen understands how close we came not just to war but to nuclear war in October 1962. At 4.30pm Saturday afternoon, 27 October 27, 1962 the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended we attack Cuba within a day and half. It wasn't until 29 years later in January 1992 that in Havana we learned at that moment in time there were about 80 or 90 tactical warheads to be used against an invasion force and another 60 or 70 to be used with intermediate range missiles against the American east coast. That's how close we came to it.

He believed that the primary responsibility of any president was to keep the nation out of war as so far as possible. And he demonstrated that belief."

Walter Cronkite, former CBS News presenter on announcing Kennedy had died

"I almost lost it, my throat choked a little bit, I had a little tear in my eye, I didn't cry, tears weren't rolling down my cheeks exactly and I didn't lose my voice, I recovered from it fairly quickly. But I'm not at all ashamed of that. Some people say you shouldn't of shown any emotion apparently, that's ridiculous, I don't pay any attention to that."

Prof Heinz Ickstadt, JFK Institute, Free University Berlin

"My wife and I went out to the movies, and in the middle of the performance the director of the cinema came out and said Kennedy had been shot. It was a moment of absolute silence and terror, horror people were really aghast. We jumped up and walked out and I think half of the movie house or even more. We were almost like traumatised walking the street, and I saw people coming towards us crying, and we stopped and talked to them, crying ourselves. We joined a crowd who were spontaneously going to the place where Kennedy had made his speech, the Schoeneberger Rathaus."

Theodore C Sorensen, Kennedy aide, 1953-1963

"Kennedy knew whether he was speaking in Berlin or any part of the world that people admired the US not because of him but because of the values of the United States, not its military might, not its wealth. That's not quite true in America these days. This country's role has suddenly changed from being the leader of freedom to being the country that often acts like a schoolyard bully. Insulting our old allies, turning our back on the United Nations, it's just unbelievable to me that we could be in the hands of the kind of group we're in the hands of now. Such a complete contrast from Kennedy."

Charles Wheeler's JFK - Legend and Leader was broadcast on Friday, 21 November at 1230GMT on BBC One and 2230GMT on BBC Four.


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