A focused cultural analysis of John F. Kennedy’s “manly ethos.”
Watts (History/Univ. of Missouri; Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, 2013, etc.) probes the masculine allure JFK represented and how it changed a nation’s impression of what a man and a political leader should embody. The author shows how, amid the “high-flying spirit of the New Frontier,” this idolized, charismatic leader navigated his personal and political lives. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, male society experienced what was considered a postwar “crisis of masculinity” due to modern workplace bureaucracies and “increasingly angry feminists,” both of which inspired a backlash in which a “cultural crusade for masculine regeneration” began to swell. Effervescently young, handsome, and idealistic, JFK came to symbolize this movement. Perhaps the book’s most compelling viewpoints are formed from the astute attention paid to the interconnectedness of the “Kennedy Circle.” This stylish, influential collective consisted not of political advisers but rather prominent male celebrities who, in one form or another, through behavior or appearance, exuded and thus promoted the touchstones of an undeniably masculine aesthetic: physical attractiveness, youth, vigor, bravado, and unbridled, unrepentant virility. Particularly provocative are chapters featuring Norman Mailer, Frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner, Kirk Douglas, and Tony Curtis. The author also examines the consequential fallout from the president’s 1963 assassination, as the country mourned the demise of their iconic leader and the modern embodiment of political leadership thus changed. A tad overanalyzed but consistently bolstered by solid research and convincing arguments, the book conjoins its subject’s two most memorable images—the private “tireless sexual adventurer” and the responsible, citizen-centered politician—and reconciles them both into a dignitary who, for better or worse, created indelible change for America.
A fresh perspective on a president whose style, legacy, and politics continue to inspire discussions about freedom and leadership values.