In addition, the historian noted, McCarthy remained popular with Irish Catholic voters even through his congressional censure in 1954. Still, “Had [Kennedy] not been in the hospital in late ’54, he would have voted for censure, I have no doubt,” said Logevall. “But the fact is, he didn’t indicate his position. He was being very careful.”

Kennedy also pulled back from other progressive views for political expediency, Logevall said. As a member of the House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953, Kennedy “had a solid, unexceptional voting record on housing and veterans’ affairs, anti-poverty legislation, and Civil Rights,” said Logevall. Once he was elected to the Senate in 1953, that changed. “In the Senate, he was really quite progressive.”

Once the White House came into view, however, everything changed. Looking to win support from conservative Southern Democrats, “You see JFK moving to the right to get that VP nomination,” said Logevall.

Looking ahead to the second volume of his biography, Logevall discussed how Kennedy would begin to shed that pragmatic conservativism once he won the presidency. That evolution was certainly encouraged by his brother Robert, Logevall said, a role he intends to address. “Robert needs to get his due.”


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How progressive Kennedy would have become remains a matter of speculation, both historians agreed. Logevall, however, pointed out that the president was moving in that direction. Previewing his second volume, he cited the commencement address then-President Kennedy gave at American University in June 1963. In that speech, he looked forward to a time when “peace and freedom walk together. In too many of our cities today, the peace is not secure because freedom is incomplete.”

“It’s a very important speech,” said Logevall. “It made Civil Rights a moral issue.”

While so much remains unknowable, Logevall concluded, “I hope that people take away from the book that this is a consequential life” — not only because Kennedy was our president, but because of the times that he helped shape.

“He’s born in 1917 just as the U.S. is coming onto the world stage and dies in ’63 when the U.S. is this superpower of incomparable military and economic power,” said Logevall. “It is an extraordinary period in our nation’s history.”