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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Life and Presidency of John F. Kennedy

The Official 2020 White House Christmas Ornament historical essay

This photograph by White House photographer Robert Knudsen shows President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy next to the Blue Room Christmas tree. This photograph was taken in 1961 before the extensive renovations initiated by the first lady.

Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The White House Historical Association’s 2020 Official White House Christmas Ornament honors John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States. The youngest president since Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy took office in January 1961, at age 43. Before his vibrant presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, he had reinvigorated the American spirit. His legacy lives on in his youthful belief in America and his faith in America’s responsibilities to the world.

With this ornament we remember President Kennedy through his posthumous official White House portrait, made in 1970 by Aaron Shikler, the artist selected by the president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. The portrait, symbolic of his unfinished presidency, hangs in the White House today. Shikler recalled that Mrs. Kennedy did not want the portrait to look the way other artists had portrayed him. “I painted him with his head bowed, not because I think of him as a martyr,” Shikler said, “but because I wanted to show him as a president who was a thinker. . . . All presidential portraits have eyes that look right at you. I wanted to do something with more meaning. I hoped to show a courage that made him humble.”

The reverse of the ornament features the dates of President Kennedy’s brief term, 1961–1963, on either side of an engraving of the White House. The White House as it is today is another Kennedy legacy. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy restored the furnishings and decor of the State Rooms to the era of the early presidents and invited the public to view them in a television special. “The White House belongs to the American people,” she said. The White House Historical Association, which Mrs. Kennedy founded in 1961 continues today to fulfill the mission she envisioned: “to enhance understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the historic White House.” The Association remains a lasting legacy of a presidential term unfinished.

The portrait of President John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler in the Cross Hall on the State Floor of the White House, 2019.

Bruce White for the White House Historical Association

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917–1963

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, was the second son in a prominent Irish Catholic family. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was a well-known businessman, and his mother, Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of a U.S. congressman and mayor of Boston. The family, eventually with nine children, was close knit and political, and regarded public service as a calling. They spent summers on Cape Cod, swimming, sailing, and playing touch football, and their cottage in Hyannis Port was eventually enlarged to become the Kennedy Compound, with several additional residences. Joe Kennedy had high expectations for his children, and he encouraged his sons, especially, to be athletic and competitive. All four Kennedy sons played football at Harvard. In his junior year, John Kennedy took an extended visit to London, where his father was serving as ambassador to Great Britain. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, John expanded his senior thesis into a book, Why England Slept, which examined that country’s lack of preparation for war.

World War II had already begun, and although the United States was not yet directly involved, both John and his older brother, Joe Jr., joined the U.S. Navy in 1941. Joe went to pilot school and John received special training for patrol torpedo boats, the famous PTs. In 1943 he was sent to the South Pacific and assumed command of PT 109, with a mission to agitate and sink Japanese supply ships. On patrol the night of August 1–2, 1943, his boat was struck in the inky darkness by a Japanese destroyer. Two crew members died in the fiery collision, but eleven, one badly injured, clung to the hull until morning. Despite his own injuries, Kennedy managed to get all of them to shore and then secure their rescue, six days later, with the help of native islanders friendly to the Allies. For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart. He was assigned to another PT boat but contracted malaria and was sent back to the United States. During his recovery came word that his older brother, Joe Jr., had died in an airplane accident over England. Joe had been the one his father always said would be president someday.

Joe’s death changed the trajectory of John’s life. John had thought of being a writer, but at his father’s urging, in 1946 he ran for a Boston seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and won. In Congress he represented his working-class district with a strong stand for labor and unions. He also supported U.S. foreign aid and military assistance. Well-liked and well respected, he was reelected twice before winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952, defeating incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge of the old Boston aristocracy.

Kennedy now had a national reputation. In the Senate he pursued his interests in foreign affairs and in history, writing a second book that won the Pulitzer Prize, Profiles in Courage, stories of eight senators who placed service to country above their careers. In 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier, and their first child, Caroline, was born in 1957. Consideration as a potential vice-presidential candidate at the Democratic Convention of 1956 positioned him for a run for president in 1960.

No Roman Catholic had ever won the presidency, but Kennedy’s forceful statements about placing public service over private religious affiliation proved convincing. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention he introduced what he called the New Frontier, a promise to move the nation forward by increasing economic opportunity, civil rights, and military preparedness as Cold War tensions with the communist Soviet Union escalated. Facing Republican Richard M. Nixon in the nation’s first televised debate, Kennedy appeared both poised and commanding. In November he won the presidency by a narrow majority.

Portrait by Aaron Shikler of President John F. Kennedy, 1970.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

The Kennedy Administration, 1961–63

Inauguration Day dawned bright and cold following a snowstorm. Standing bare headed in the sun, the new president offered not promises but a challenge. He called on foreign adversaries to “begin anew the quest for peace” and on his “fellow Americans” to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

One of Kennedy’s first acts as president was to create the Peace Corps, a program that sent young people to developing nations, to live among the people they helped. In addition to technical assistance for projects in health, sanitation, and education, their objective was “to promote peace and friendship.” More than seven thousand idealistic Americans, young and old, signed up. Kennedy asked Congress for legislation that increased the minimum wage, provided health insurance for the aged, and scholarship aid for those studying medicine, dentistry, and nursing. He reinvigorated America’s space program with a commitment to landing a man on the moon, and bringing him safely back to earth, “before this decade is out.”

But several months into his administration Kennedy’s attention to domestic issues was interrupted by a foreign crisis. He had approved an Eisenhower-era plan for overthrowing Cuba’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro. But when CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, they were captured. Kennedy accepted full responsibility, then turned to his predecessor for wisdom, inviting former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Camp David. Sobered by failure, Kennedy stood firm when he met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June. Khrushchev sought to force the Allied powers out of Berlin, which had been divided at the end of World War II. When Kennedy would not withdraw, Khrushchev ordered a wall built between the Soviet and Allied zones of the city. Cold War tensions escalated, and a nuclear arms race resumed.

The next year brought a much more dangerous crisis. In October, when the Soviets began to install missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. shores, the superpowers were brought to the brink of nuclear war. Putting the U.S. military on high alert and assembling a panel of security advisers, Kennedy considered possible responses. On October 22 he announced a quarantine of the island and sent the U.S. Navy to enforce it. As Soviet ships with supplies for the missile sites approached, the whole world was watching. At the last minute the ships turned around, and in the next days behind the scenes communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev opened a resolution. Khrushchev agreed to remove the Cuban missiles if Kennedy would promise that the United States would not invade Cuba and, in an agreement secret at the time, would remove U.S. missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet heartland. On November 2 Kennedy announced that “progress is now being made toward peace in the Caribbean.”

Meanwhile Kennedy and the nation faced a series of domestic crises over civil rights. In 1954 the Supreme Court had ordered that racial segregation in schools be ended, but southern resistance was strong. Violence against protests by young people sitting in at lunch counters, riding interstate buses, and attempting to attend previously all-white state colleges led Attorney General Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s younger brother and closest adviser, to send in federal marshals, again and again. In June 1963, when the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, “stood in the schoolhouse door,” as he promised, to prevent African Americans from registering at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy went on television to address the issue of civil rights head on. It is not a sectional issue, he said, not a partisan issue, or even just a legal or legislative issue, but “a moral issue.” “The heart of the question,” he continued, “is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” He called on Congress to enact legislation protecting the rights of all Americans to be served in places of public accommodation and to vote without penalty or intimidation.

Kennedy’s comprehensive civil rights bill was under debate in Congress, when, in August, a March on Washington brought a quarter of a million supporters to the National Mall. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers led the crowd in “We Shall Overcome,” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the nation “to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . ‘that all men are created equal.’” In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress in tribute to Kennedy, and a Voting Rights Act followed the next year.

Kennedy’s confidence in the purpose of America and in Americans’ ability to solve problems seemed on the way to being realized that summer. In June, at a commencement address at American University, he announced that his topic would be “the most important on earth: world peace.” “Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I’m talking about genuine peace,” he said, “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for all their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” He called on Americans to “reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union,” not to give in to propaganda and distorted views that “see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” “Let us direct our attention to our common interests,” he said, “for, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

At the end of the speech Kennedy announced negotiations under way for a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets; it was signed in August, and a few weeks later a “hot line” was installed, a direct link between Washington and Moscow that would permit instantaneous communication between the superpowers. Visiting the Berlin Wall that summer, Kennedy repeated his themes of freedom and peace. “Freedom is indivisible,” he said. “Lift your eyes beyond the dangers to today, to the hopes of tomorrow . . . to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.”

The Kennedy Family in the White House

Not since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt had there been little children in the White House. Caroline was three when the Kennedys moved in, and John just two months old. Photographs of them romping with their father in the Oval Office and of Caroline riding her pony, Macaroni, on the White House lawn endeared this young family to all Americans, of all political persuasions. When Khrushchev sent Caroline a white puppy, Pushinka, and when Pushinka and the family’s beloved Welsh terrier, Charlie, had puppies together, the photo ops were irresistible.

Yet Jacqueline Kennedy was protective of her children, wanting to preserve for them as normal a childhood as possible. She established a preschool for Caroline on the Third Floor of the White House and invited friends’ children to join. Always she sought to carve out a private, affectionate life for her family, even as she recognized her responsibilities as America’s first lady.

This photograph shows President John F. Kennedy with Caroline, John, Jr., and Caroline's pony, Macaroni. They stand just outside of the Oval Office, beside the Rose Garden and West Colonnade.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Summers the family spent in the Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod, with cousins and all the outdoor games that the Kennedys had always played with vigor. At other times of the year they escaped, when they could to a farm called Glen Ora, near Middleburg, Virginia, where Mrs. Kennedy, an excellent horsewoman, enjoyed the freedom of riding through open fields. Palm Beach, where Joe Kennedy had a large stucco house, was another sanctuary, and often where the Kennedys spent holidays with their many relatives.

Jacqueline Kennedy wanted a comfortable home for her family, and her first task on moving into the White House was to remake the upstairs quarters with her children in mind. A kitchen and private dining room were added, and the furnishings changed to suit the domestic life of a young family. But her lasting contributions were to the decor of the State Floor rooms, which she restored and furnished with antiques as well as some original pieces donated back to the White House with the encouragement of her advisory committee. As much as possible, she hoped the public spaces could be a repository for American fine arts and decorative arts. She pushed Congress for legislation that made certain the furnishings were not sold off again at auction, as had been the practice in the past.

She established the White House Historical Association, hired the mansion’s first curator, and edited its first guidebook—proceeds from which continue to be used to acquire furnishings and preserve the historic fabric of the White House. The Executive Residence’s historic setting on Lafayette Square led to yet another project. Together the Kennedys preserved the square as a nineteenth-century residential neighborhood, its central park a green retreat in marble Washington. Outside the Oval Office they planted a Rose Garden that was both a private retreat and a ceremonial platform.

To this elegant setting the Kennedys invited the nation’s famous writers, artists, and musicians for both formal and informal events. They wanted the White House to showcase American performing arts and to serve as a stage for symbolizing the best of America and the American presidency. Their commitment to federal support for the arts would, in the years ahead, be realized in the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities and in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, built on the shore of the Potomac River in Washington.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stands before television cameras in the State Dining Room during her televised tour of the White House, 1962.


The Kennedy Christmas Celebrations

For the family’s first Christmas in the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy decorated the official White House Christmas tree, set up in the Blue Room, with tiny toys, birds, sugarplum fairies, and angels that evoked Petr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Thus began a tradition of White House tree decorations that carry out a specific theme. The 1962 tree, in the North Entrance, continued the children’s theme with brightly wrapped packages, candy canes, gingerbread cookies, and straw ornaments made by disabled and senior citizens from across the United States. Mrs. Kennedy visited a local children’s hospital to give presents to sick children who would not be home for Christmas. The Kennedys generally traveled to Palm Beach for Christmas Day, where members of the large extended family often gathered. The children hung stockings and put on Christmas pageants, and all went to Christmas Mass together. In 1962 the personal gifts were chosen with great care. Knowing her love of French art, John Kennedy gave his wife a drawing by the French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir. Knowing his love of the sea, Jacqueline Kennedy gave her husband a piece of scrimshaw carved with the Presidential Seal. Caroline wanted a doll, and John a helicopter.

Planning for Christmas 1963 was almost completed by November 21, when John and Jacqueline Kennedy flew to Texas for a three-day visit. The annual Christmas card was already printed—a color photograph of an eighteenth-century crèche that was displayed for the holidays in the East Room— and cards for thirty friends and supporters had been signed. John Kennedy had purchased a fur coverlet as a present for his wife, and he had learned to speak enough French to surprise her on Christmas Day.

The Kennedy Legacy

News of Kennedy’s death shocked Americans and shook the entire world. Leaders from more than ninety nations attended the funeral. It was too soon to speak of a legacy, but it is clear now that the Kennedys changed the character of the White House forever. John Kennedy’s daring and optimism inspired Americans to take pride in their achievements and to commit to public service. Kennedy was president in a dangerous time, and his leadership, both clear-eyed and calm, worked always toward peace.

President John F. Kennedy's flag-draped casket is seen carried on a horse-drawn caisson as his funeral procession leaves the White House, 1963.

National Archives and Records Administration

After she left the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy sought the private life she had always wanted, for herself and her children. She returned only once, on February 3, 1971, privately and in secret, to view the official portraits by Aaron Shikler. “The day I always dreaded,” she wrote in a thank-you to First Lady Pat Nixon, “turned out to be one of the most precious ones I spent with my children.”