John F Kennedy

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

John F Kennedy Pencil Portrait
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This pencil portrait of JFK in the White House dates from those heady first weeks in office following his inaugural ceremony. I was struggling with it for a while, until I realised I wasn’t emphasising the facial effects of the cortisone he took every day for addison’s desease. Medical practitioners never get the dosage right and the patient is invariably given too much. The “beneficial side effects” include an insatiable sex drive, the permanent avoidance of depression and bountiful energy.

This image of a robust leader we all associate him with is very much attributable to his medication. Once I got that fact firmly in my mind, the drawing came together.

I watched the entire JFK funeral on November 25 1963. I have no idea why I should have been so transfixed by the event since I was still several weeks shy of my fifth birthday, and yet in some way I was seemingly aware of an event so momentous as to have brought an entire nation, if not much of the world, to a complete standstill. My mother periodically kept coming into the lounge in between preparing the day’s meal half expecting my interest to have waned, maybe to find me playing with my toys, yet there I was still mesmerised by the whole event. Of course, I have no recollection of the actual proceedings but the experience of that day is still vivid. My father, whose native tongue was Spanish, flew to Madrid the following month on business and was intrigued to compare the latin mentality with the English speaking people he now interacted with on a daily basis. Whilst work colleagues in England appeared more than prepared to accept the lone gunman theory, his Spanish compatriots were equally clear about where the blame truly lay; “So Bethlehem Steel got him in the end!”

Kennedy was an internationalist. He believed the future was in free trade and open markets. Where steelmakers were traditionally protectionist, calling for high tariffs to keep foreign steel out, Kennedy wanted to encourage global competition. The details of his ongoing war with the steel magnets and their flagrant attempts to derail his economic recovery programme are freely available for all to read. Less well known is the fact that Bethlehem steel had effectively peaked as a business in the 1950’s as a company manufacturing some 23 million tons per year while the steel industries in Japan and Germany were still devastated by the war. Business inevitably slowed after that, but the escalating conflict in Vietnam would have revived the company’s fortunes. Unfortunately, JFK would announce his intention to withdraw troops from South East Asia. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Pr3esident’s father had held an assistant general manager post with the company during World War II. Any sentiment of “direct betrayal” was all too obvious.

I don’t know who killed JFK, the steel corporations, the mob, Cuban exiles, Castro, the Russians, the CIA, the chief US military staff – take your pick, but if you believe in the Warren Commission’s findings, then you’re happy in suspending logic. Just imagine what would have happened to the President’s future security arrangements had he survived the assassination attempt? Triangular crossfire in Dealey Plaza – that’s how I would have arranged it. I met an American at a Gibraltarrean Round Table meeting in 1992 who said he didn’t believe in the conspiracy theories. I pressed and pressed until he caved in, admitting that he was tired of sifting through the ever mounting evidence, that it was easier to toe the official line. It has become accepted in certain quarters that people like me have a very real need to believe in anything but the official line; that the notion of the most powerful man in the western world being blown away by a lone extremist is too simplistic by half. Yes, I’ll go along with that, not that I’m prepared to apologise for believing in a wider conspiracy. Many people profited from the events in Dallas, and that amount of ‘pools winners’ in a single day is beyond the law of probability.

JFK saved my life and millions others during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He was able to see the ultimate futility of nuclear engagement probably because he was a father to two young children himself. For that reason alone I can forgive him his peccadilloes even though I don’t truly consider them to be small sins. Ultimately though, he was an extremely ill man for much of his life, initially averse to a career in politics preferring instead to have become a writer and entered the White House on the cusp of momentous changes in American history, most notably the vexed question of negro integration. Most of all, he inspired an interest in politics amongst young people with the launch of the ‘Peace Corps’ in a way that Muhammad Ali did likewise for boxing. People who can inspire involvement in subjects that ordinarily would bore others are unique. For sure, I have been seduced by the Kennedy PR machine, his was an unfinished life and I regret that fact. Millions of people living through the Cold War felt “safe” with him. The broadcaster Nicholas Parsons once elucidated that – speaking for many young fathers at the time – “JFK carried with him the hopes of an entire generation.”

We are spoon fed a constant diet of violence on film and television until we become almost desensitised to it all, but frame 313 of Abraham Zapruder’s home movie showing JFK’s head exploding as a direct result of that vital head shot still affects me badly.

Recommended viewing

JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone’s movie – if you don’t question anything after this three hour experience, then you never will.

Interview With the President, Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, September 2, 1963

An interesting summation of Kennedy’s presidency to date, that also provides a clear indication of how different American society would have been throughout the remainder of the decade had he lived. Raising the question of Vietnam Walter Cronkite’s interview with Kennedy includes the President’s statement that “In the final analysis, it is their war. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it…”

An unedited version of this interview is available on YouTube.

Recommended reading

Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

This book was a 1981 best seller In it, David S. Lifton claims that after John F. Kennedy’s assassination unnamed conspirators stole the dead President’s corpse in transit from Dallas, Texas, to Bethesda, Maryland, and took it to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where bullets were removed, existing wounds altered, and false wounds added, all in an attempt to frame Oswald. Lifton then claims the body was shipped to the Bethesda Naval Medical School morgue and placed in its original casket in time for the autopsy by Navy pathologists.

An engrossing read for at the end of the day if one is powerful enough then literally anything can be arranged.

John F. Kennedy – An unfinished life (Robert Dallek)

Wisely avoiding detailed analysis of Dallas, Mr Dallek then asserts that the Warren Commission’s findings were correct. I could have given up on the man at that point, but his recounting of JFK’s life is incisive, well balanced, and a sound starting point for the casual reader.

JFK in Ireland (Four days that changed a President) (Ryan Tubridy)

As the first ever Irish catholic American to be elected President, it was only to be expected that JFK’s trip to his homeland would be a memorable one, yet the respect and unrestrained adoration he received over the course of his four day visit clearly exceeded all expectations, leaving an indelible mark on him. He had but five months to live.

As ever with me I purchased this book at a heavily discounted price, and what resonates more than anything is the pictorial gallery; images of happy smiling faces just thrilled to meet the leader of the free world.

JFK’s visit had been preceded by delicate negotiations over a period of two and a half years involving the Irish President Eamon de Valera, his apprentice Taoiseach Sean Lemass and Dr Thomas J. Kiernan, Irish Amabassador to the United States. JFK was always likely to encounter opposition from congress to the visit and indeed the stay was ultimately tagged on to a major European tour. However, once he committed himself to the journey home to the land of his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy nothing was going to stop him. Over time I have collected considerable footage from this visit but Turbridy’s book somehow makes it more real and in particular the level of expectation from the Irish people to the President’s impending visit. Throughout his stay he ignored the protestations of his secret service staff and walked repeatedly into the enormous crowds. As one observer noted, it seemed very important to him to really engage with people and to touch hands.

At the beginning of the book is a facsimile of a letter his widow Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to President De Valera on January 22, 1964. What strikes one about changing trends in civility and manners over the last fifty years, is that it is a handwritten letter, not dictated but with observations that are measured, reflective, gracious and redolent with gratitude. In it she writes “He would never have become President had he not been Irish. All the history of your people is a long one at overcoming obstacles. He felt that burden on him as a young Irishman in Boston – and he had so many obstacles in his path – his religion, his health, his youth. He fought against each from the time he was a boy, and by always striving, he ended as President.”

She goes on to touchingly remark that her children relate all good things to some form of Irish heritage, and ends her letter on a poignant note, “I know we were all so blessed to have him as long as we did – but I will never understand why God had to take him now.”


The JFK library

Top JFK Assassination websites

Don’t even start me on the lone gunman theory; I’m psychologically built for conspiracies and like so many of us, I’m arrogant enough to believe I’m right!!!

The Jacques Lowe Kennedy portrait collection – iconic black and white photography.

Youtube – Masses of material from his inspirational inaugural address to the nation to his emotional journey to Ireland in the last summer of his life.