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EXPERT AVAILABLE: President John F. Kennedy and the Masculine Mystique

MU Scholar Suggests JFK Managed His Own Celebrity; Assassination Led to Radical Change

November 18th, 2013

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346, sossamonj@missouri.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – President John F. Kennedy was in the White House less than three years—a presidency marked by the rise of Fidel Castro’s regime and the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed summit with Russian President Nikita Khrushchev, as well as domestic problems including recessions and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, Kennedy is revered as one of the most effective and influential presidents of the past century. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, Steven Watts, professor of history in the College of Arts & Science at the University of Missouri, says that while the assassination may color the lens of Kennedy’s presidency, JFK’s careful management of his image may have been a calculated attempt by the president to secure his own place in history.

Watts, a renowned author who has written critically acclaimed biographies of Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner, Henry Ford and Dale Carnegie, is conducting research for an upcoming biography of Kennedy that Watts says not only studies Kennedy’s life and death, but also puts the shift of 1960s culture squarely on the shoulders of the president.

“In the early 1960s, there was a perceived crisis of manhood. American men had fallen victim to the drudgery of bureaucracy and the softness of consumerism,” Watts said. “Here was an older, stodgy, late 1950s mentality fostered by an Eisenhower, who, at the time, was the oldest president in American history. Then, the strapping, vibrant and vigorous John Kennedy burst on the scene. He was assertive, perceived to be physically fit and glamorous and became the youngest president elected in American history. He promised a new ethic of ‘tough-mindedness’ and ‘cool.’”

“President Kennedy knew the power of image as a way to regenerate manhood,” Watts said. “He wrote articles for Sports Illustrated, established the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and surrounded himself with masculine icons like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Hugh Hefner, author Ian Fleming of James Bond fame and General Maxwell Taylor with the Green Berets. Even the philandering that was rumored in the early 1960s and revealed after his death fed into that manhood mystique.”

Watts suggests Kennedy opened the floodgates that destabilized the culture of the 1950s. Kennedy challenged the “old, tired society,” through the calculated management of his own youthful and masculine image. Then the assassination, Watts proposes, was the trigger to the disruption that followed.

“Kennedy knew the power of image in an increasingly media-saturated society,” Watts said. “In a time when television was taking off, he recognized that the way politicians advance is through the image we project. By carefully controlling his image, he directly challenged social traditions and plowed the ground for the seeds of the radicalism that followed.”

Watts specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the United States. His book “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life” led to an appearance on CBS/Time Magazine’s documentary, “Makers of the Twentieth Century.” His expertise on Henry Ford led to an interview on PBS’s “American Experience” and on the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America.” His upcoming biography on John F. Kennedy, “Kennedy Adonais: JFK, The Masculine Mystique and American Culture,” is scheduled to be released in 2015.

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