JFK : Life and Death in the Media Spotlight

Fifty years ago the world was rocked on its axis by the news that the President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been assassinated during a visit to Dallas. That the most powerful leader in the western world had been killed seemed beyond belief. Click on the image below to hear an ITV News report from the scene a few days later.

Dallas Today

Wreaths are laid at the site of the assassination
ITV News: Dallas Today 27-11-1963

This event marked the end of a period of huge expectation and hope that Kennedy had brought with him when he came to power. His assassination sent a wave of despair and fear across America and the rest of the world when tensions over the Cold War were at their height.

In the clip below you can hear some reaction to the news from Americans and further on in the clip there are broadcasts from the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson.

Reaction to the news of the assassination of President Kennedy
Kennedy Assassination: ITN Specials 23-11-1963

A few years earlier it had seemed extremely unlikely that Kennedy could be successfully voted into office. However at 43 years of age Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by the slimmest of margins (0.2%) to become the youngest ever elected President of the United States and the first Roman Catholic.

The Kennedy Campaign
Kennedy Obituary: ITV News 22-11-1963

To many this unexpected victory was all the more surprising due to his lack of experience in government. Nixon had served under the previous Republican President, Eisenhower and had been considered the favourite candidate. In the following clip you can hear reaction to the news from Londoners interviewed on Waterloo Bridge, as well as a disappointed American Republican voter.

Londoners on Waterloo Bridge give their opinions on Kennedy’s election
US Election Reactions in Britain : ITV News 9-11-1960

Kennedy came from a privileged East coast background but his undeniable charisma and charm won him lots of support from ordinary people during his grassroots campaigning. While running in the Democrat Primaries he targeted West Virginia where unemployment was at around 30% due to the decline in the coal industry. The following ‘Roving Report’  looks at the real deprivation which was prevalent in the area at the time.

The Hungry Hills: Report on Poverty and Unemployment
Roving Report 22-02-1961

Kennedy’s commendable war record gained him many votes among the large number of veterans who lived in the State and winning West Virginia became a turning point in his successful campaign.

Kennedy wins the Nomination for Democrat Candidate
ITV News: Kennedy Obit 22-11-1963

JFK represented a break with the past and the staid post war years. He projected an image of youth and vigour which was in  tune with the birth of the Sixties. It was the first Presidential election to be televised and this played to Kennedy’s strengths. Having worked as a journalist in the past he had a good understanding of the media and how to use it to his best advantage, particularly during the televised debates with Nixon. However despite his easy going manner  he suffered from several serious health conditions and was often in chronic pain, although details of this were suppressed until many years after his death.

Kennedy delivers his inaugural address as President
ITV News: Kennedy Obit 22-11-63

 Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country

Kennedy’s inauguration speech, delivered on 20th January 1961, is regarded as one of the greatest of the 20th Century. It served as a rallying cry for a new generation to defend freedom and liberty and work towards world peace at a time when the possibility of nuclear war was very real.

With Kennedy as President it must have seemed anything was possible so it was all the more humiliating for him to have been involved in the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco a few months later. The following year he was able to redeem his reputation through  the leadership skills he showed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At a time when nuclear war was a hair’s breadth away his level headed negotiations with Kruschev defused a potential Armageddon.

Kennedy stands with Harold Macmillan outside the US Embassy in London
ITV News: Kennedy in London 05-06-1961

This was a time when the ‘special relationship’ really was special.  Britain was valued as America’s staunchest ally in the fight against communism and the Kennedys had strong ties with the UK.  JFK had lived in London for several years during the time his father was U.S. Ambassador and his family roots all lay in Ireland.

Kennedy in London

Jacqueline Kennedy: The most potent weapon in JFK’s charm offensive
ITV News: Kennedy in London 05-06-1961

There was great public excitement about the Presidential visit in June 1961 when the Kennedys were received as a celebrity couple. In this ITV News clip you can watch them arrive in London to cheering crowds but also some CND protests. Click here to see further coverage of their fever-pitch welcome.

U.S.A. Mr Harold Wilson meets President Kennedy

Harold Wilson meets Kennedy at the White House
Visnews: U.S.A. Mr Harold Wilson meets President Kennedy

In  April 1963 Harold Wilson, the Leader of the British Labour Party who was soon to become Prime Minister, spent a short time with Kennedy during a visit to Washington. In this clip from Visnews he is asked about his personal reactions to the President and whether the world belongs to ‘young’ men such as him. Wilson gives his forthright views on the topic – however the fact he is only 15 months older than Kennedy is never referred to. For more on this interesting visit watch the following ‘Roving Report’  Mr Wilson’s Washington.

Kennedy’s success lay in his ability to allow the American people to believe the world could become a better place and they could lead the way in bringing this about. He also had many enemies, possibly including the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, who were plotting to bring him down. Kennedy was living in dangerous times and was killed before he had chance to start campaigning for a second term.

ITV News: Oswald Lawyer Interview 15-04-1964

Interview with the Lawyer defending Lee Harvey Oswald
ITV News: Oswald Lawyer Interview 15-04-1964

In the panic and confusion immediately following Kennedy’s assassination, the authorities moved rapidly to arrest Lee Harvey Oswald as the prime suspect. No records were made of his interrogation and he was shot dead by Jack Ruby two days later on live television as he was about to be moved to another Police Station. In the meantime  Lyndon B. Johnson set up the Warren Commission who reported the following year that Oswald had killed Kennedy alone and unaided. The report was soon discovered to be full of inconsistencies and mistakes and many believe it was a cover-up for a conspiracy. In the following ITV Newsclip you can hear Mark Lane, Oswald’s defence lawyer discuss why he believed Oswald to be innocent of the crime.

Evidence offered by the famous Zapruder film has suggested that more than one gunman was involved and this tallies with many eye witness accounts. Mark Lane went on to develop the ‘magic bullet’ theory which discredits the Warren Commission’s report on how Kennedy was shot. Click on the image below to hear him explain his ideas.


Mark Lane explains the ‘Magic Bullet’ theory
ITV News: JFK Assassination 26-09-1975

What would we think of Kennedy if he were alive today? During the Sixties his carefully managed media profile combined with his untimely death gained him an almost god-like status. In recent years this gilded image has tarnished following revelations about his lifestyle and infidelities. Whatever our opinion of him may be (American hero or amoral socialite?) the West has remained forever grateful to him for preventing the outbreak of nuclear war. His style and personality changed the look of modern politics forever and in that sense he has influenced all our lives.

If you have any comments to make about the life or death of President Kennedy we would love to hear from you. Just leave a reply below at the end of this post.

Further Links:

Fantasy Speakers’ Corner

Inspired by the recent anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, this was intended to be a blog-post featuring world-famous speeches but it soon became clear that archive footage of such speeches is very rare indeed. Fortunately, however, Jisc MediaHub features many world-famous speakers from the 20th and 21st centuries, so I have assembled a selection of some of them, imagining them at a “Fantasy Speakers’ Corner. We start early in the 20th century, when many events were filmed without sound.

Here is Trotsky speaking at the Kremlin, when he was still in favour with the regime.


Large Communist Demonstration in Moscow. Leon Trotsky speaks at Kremlin, 1922 (Gaumont Graphic)

The ETV collection is a fascinating historical resource from an Eastern perspective. Footage from the Soviet archives shows Lenin in a number of films, such as Leading the People: Together with the People – a “documentary tracing the history of the Russian Revolution and the role of the people in the USSR and other socialist countries in working to achieve a Communist society during the 20th century”.


Leading the People: Together with the People ( Educational and Television Films Ltd)

Between the two world wars, there are numerous British clips of Lloyd George in action, this one showing him in rousing form , speaking to 40,000 electors in Rochdale Town Hall Square in 1923.


Rousing Speech in Lancashire (Gaumont Graphic)

And Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour premier, is seen making a speech in Wolverhampton in 1924 from a car, surrounded by crowds.


Prime Minister in the Midlands (Gaumont Graphic)

Jennie Lee, the youngest MP in the House of Commons in 1929, opposed MacDonald, but continued in politics, becoming arts minister in the 1964 Labour government and helping to establish the Open University.


Arts White Paper. Jennie Lee interviewed about plans to develop the Arts in England. (ITV News)

In the Second World War, Frank Capra’s propaganda film, Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike, designed to persuade the US to join the Allies, brilliantly demonstrates Adolf Hitler’s terrifying oratory.


Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike. (Imperial War Museum)

Winston Churchill’s leadership inspired Britain to resist the Nazi menace and some of his most famous speeches are represented in this moving tribute to him.


Tribute to Sir Winston Churchill. (Gaumont British News)

After the war, the first hint of a potential thaw in relations between East and West was the death of Stalin, whose moustachioed figure embodied the Eastern threat in the Cold War but whose Georgian accent denied him universal appeal in the USSR.


Death of Stalin. (Gaumont British News)

The hopes of the West in the 1960s were embodied by two US figures, JF Kennedy and Martin Luther King, seen here promoting racial equality at an event in London in 1964.


Negro Equality. An address from Martin Luther King, on the subject of black and white equality, to an audience of mainly white people. (ITV News)

Some of King’s dreams were realised across the Atlantic in South Africa, where apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela became the first black president of the republic.


Nelson Mandela Visits UK. (ITN)

Lenin’s image still loomed large in the USSR, even as Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his perestroika reforms, as can be seen in this photo of Gorbachev addressing the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Moscow, 1986.


General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (Getty Images)

20 years after the astonishing election that brought him to power in Poland, Lech Walesa reflected on the optimism and disappointments of the latter years of the 20th century in an interview with AP.

And no-one could deny that one of the defining political figures of that era was Margaret Thatcher, who led reform of the Western economies and staunchly supported leaders such as Gorbachev and Walesa in the East.


USSR: Thatcher/Gorbachev talks. (Channel 4 News)

Britain again played a major political and military role in the world in the early years of the 21st century, led by the charismatic Tony Blair, who often employed an understated, almost conversational rhetorical style, as when he called on the US and Europe to bury their differences over Iraq in 2004.


Blair calls on US and Europe to bury differences on Iraq. (AP Archive)

Who would be in your Fantasy Speakers Corner? Take a browse around Jisc MediaHub and share your favourites here in the Comments.