22 Days In November
7:45 am
Mon November 11, 2013

9 Things You Should Know About JFK -- His Life And Legacy

Throughout November, KERA will mark the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination by taking a closer look at that fateful day, what it meant to the country, how it changed Dallas, and more.

Today, we take a look at a documentary about JFK that’s airing on PBS.

Tonight and Tuesday, “American Experience” explores John F. Kennedy – his life and legacy.

“JFK,” a four-hour two-part special, airs at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on KERA-TV, Channel 13.

Here’s how PBS describes “JFK”:

This new four-hour portrait offers a fresh assessment of the enigmatic man, his accomplishments and his unfulfilled promise, featuring interviews with Kennedy family members and historians including Robert Dallek, Robert Caro and Evan Thomas. …

Forever enshrined in myth by an assassin's bullet, Kennedy's presidency long defied objective appraisal. Recent assessments have revealed an administration long on promise and vigor, and somewhat lacking in tangible accomplishment. …

With the benefit of newly opened archives and recently released documents, the film re-evaluates JFK's strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office and looks at how he navigated some of the most explosive events of the mid-20th century: the Cuban missile crisis, the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia, and the urgent demands of an increasingly impatient civil rights movement. It also provides new insights into his private life -- his relationship with his beautiful, accomplished wife, his obsessive womanizing, his inappropriate friendships, his reliance on his younger brothers, and his deference to the all-powerful father who had helped make him who he was.

Mark Samels and Susan Bellows, who worked on the documentary, talked about JFK on a recent edition of ‘Think’ on KERA 90.1 FM.

Watch a part of “JFK,” the documentary airing Monday and Tuesday night on KERA-TV, Channel 13:

Before watching tonight's documentary, brush up on all things JFK, courtesy of “American Experience”:

1. He was a young troublemaker

Jack was educated at private schools, Jack didn’t care for authority and wasn’t the best student. At Choate, a boys' preparatory academy, Kennedy became a magnet for troublemakers. Untidy and rebellious, he made a distinctly negative impression on the Choate faculty. He consistently earned mediocre grades. His father worried that he might never reach his potential.

2. He was a young author

By early 1940, when Jack began his last semester at Harvard, most of Europe had been crushed by the Nazi war machine, and Britain lay under siege. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy faced harsh public criticism for his appeasement of Hitler, as well as for his public assertions that Britain would be destroyed by the Nazis. But Jack Kennedy had his own ideas about England's response to Hitler's rise to power, and he developed them in his Harvard senior thesis. Published and promoted by Joseph Kennedy. Sr., Why England Slept became a national bestseller. In the book, author John F. Kennedy argued that it was the isolationist character of the British population as a whole, and not Britain's political leadership, that had led to Hitler's appeasement.

3. He was a Navy man

Jack joined the Navy in the fall of 1941. Two years later, he became an American hero. As commander of motor torpedo boat PT 109, he had kept his men safe behind enemy lines after the boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese vessel. The incident made him famous.

4. "Like soap flakes"

In 1946, at the urging of his father, Kennedy parlayed his hero status into a Massachusetts Congressional seat. "We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes, " Joe Kennedy said.

5. The famous debate

Kennedy and his Republican rival Richard M. Nixon met on Sept. 26, 1960 in a debate that changed the course of American politics. Vice President Nixon defended the Eisenhower administration against charges that its domestic programs had failed. Kennedy denied Nixon's assertions that he lacked the necessary experience. But it was not the content of the debate that made it a political milestone. It was the medium by which most Americans experienced the debate -- television.

Before the debate began, public opinion polls showed a close race between the two men. But the television cameras changed that. An estimated 75 million viewers, at the time the largest television audience ever, saw a contrast between Nixon and Kennedy that had nothing to do with political positions. Nixon, who was recovering from a recent illness, appeared haggard and pale. He wore a five o'clock shadow and perspired. His makeup ran under the hot studio lights. Kennedy looked fit, relaxed and handsome. He exuded confidence and poise.

The power of these televised images revealed itself in post-debate polls. Many radio listeners gave the edge to Nixon. Television viewers, however, overwhelmingly agreed that Kennedy had won.

6. Assuring the “survival and success of liberty”

On inauguration day, Jan. 20, 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed to a national television audience that Americans would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty."

7. He was a young president
Although Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest man to serve as president, Kennedy was the youngest elected president at 43. He was also the youngest to die in office, at 46.

8. All in the family
While JFK was president, his brother Robert was U.S. Attorney General, and his youngest brother, Ted, was elected a U.S. Senator. This is the only time that three members of the same family have held such high government positions. JFK was also the only president to appoint a sibling to a cabinet post.

9. The Pulitzer president
JFK is the only president to have won a Pulitzer Prize, for his collective biography, Profiles in Courage.

10. JFK and the civil rights movement

On May 3, 1963, television news programs brought images of racial violence into living rooms across America. Viewers watched as blacks protesting segregation in Birmingham, Ala., were attacked with clubs, dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses by Birmingham police. Kennedy, who had shown lukewarm support for civil rights legislation, was forced into action. The next month, he announced a comprehensive package of civil rights legislation in a nationally televised address.

We’ve compiled this post based on information from “JFK,” the documentary airing on PBS.

KERA wants to hear your JFK stories and memories. Email us at jfk@kera.org. We may contact you or use your memory in an upcoming story.