My history hero: John F Kennedy (1917–63)

Television presenter Richard Madeley explains why he admires a 20th-century US president

John F Kennedy pictured in 1957

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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John F Kennedy (1917–63) – also known as Jack or JFK – was the 35th president of the United States. Elected in 1960, he was assassinated in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the murder but was himself killed before he could stand trial. JFK’s presidency witnessed serious confrontations with the USSR, leading to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy served in the US navy in the Second World War. He was married to Jacqueline Bouvier.

When did you first hear about JFK?

The day he was shot. I was seven years old, and sitting at home on the sofa with my parents. We were about to watch a comedy show with Harry Worth – when there was a newsflash and a newscaster appeared and announced: “We’re getting reports that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas.” The screen went black. Moments later, the newscaster reappeared again, and said: “I’m very sorry to have to tell you that President Kennedy is dead.”

My parents instantly burst into tears – and I realised something terrible had happened. The following day my father and I queued up outside the American embassy to sign the book of condolence.

What kind of person was he?

An incredibly complex character. At the time, he was seen as a great liberal and whiter than white – he was also very good-looking and was married to an incredibly glamorous wife. But after his death we discovered that he was a terrible philanderer – he once told Harold Macmillan that if he didn’t have sex at least once a day he got a terrible headache! However, none of that should detract from the fact that he was a real leader.

What made him a hero?

Two, or maybe three things defined his presidency – and make him a hero in my eyes. Firstly, his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, when he kept a cool head against the Soviet Union and toughed it out – and Khrushchev blinked first.

Secondly, the extraordinary speech he made in which he declared that America was going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And when people asked him why he wanted Americans to go to the moon, he uttered the remarkable words: because “we choose to go”. And thirdly, the way he and his brother Bobby helped push forward America’s civil rights agenda.

What was his finest hour?

He had three finest hours: standing up to Khrushchev, advancing America’s space programme, and driving forward civil rights in America’s deep south. He and Bobby were instrumental in dragging America into the modern age – and moving it away from racial discrimination and prejudice. But you have to remember that he was only part way through his first presidency, and was already crossing all sorts of Rubicons when he died.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about JFK?

His womanising, obviously – and today he simply wouldn’t have got away with it. That was a major character flaw and deeply insulting to his wife, Jackie. It was a shame he couldn’t keep it in his trousers…

Can you see any parallels between JFK’s life and your own?

God, no – that would be hubris writ large. The only thing that I might have in common with Jack Kennedy is that, like him, I quite like a sharp suit – and of course, if you do wear a dark suit, it’s vital that your shirt cuffs can be seen. Absolutely! About three-quarters of an inch outside your jacket, to be precise.

If you could meet JFK, what would you ask him?

I’d want to ask him if, during the Cuban missile crisis, he seriously feared in his heart of hearts that it might end in nuclear conflict – and we might all end up getting fried.

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Richard Madeley was talking to York Membery. Richard Madeley is a television presenter and author. His latest novel, The Way You Look Tonight, is out now, published by Simon & Schuster. His next novel, The Night Book, will be published in 2016