Apparent Perfection: The Image of John F. Kennedy

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Abstract

This article explores the issue of how the potent, alluring image of John Kennedy was constructed. The essay begins with an examination of how, even before reaching the White House, Kennedy was able to develop a multi-faceted image as a man of letters (with the publication of Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage), military hero (through his service in the Navy during the Second World War), precocious politician, erotic symbol and symbol of the family. The importance of image to the outcome of the 1960 presidential campaign, particularly in terms of the television debates with Richard Nixon, is assessed. Kennedy's presidency is examined for the way it reinforced ideas about him that had come to the fore before he became chief executive: his use of the White House to showcase the arts, thereby strengthening his image as a man of letters and cultural refinement; the enhancing of his war-hero status with the release of the Hollywood film PT-109; the continued eroticization of his image through his public links with Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Anita Ekberg; and the prominence of his wife, siblings, children and parents in reinforcing the image of JFK as a symbol of the family. The impact of the assassination is considered for the way it created the Camelot mythology that came to adorn Kennedy's posthumous reputation. How Kennedy's image was sustained from the time of the assassination to recent years – through film, music, architecture and the visual image – will also be examined.

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