My Friend, My President

Article excerpt

Byline: Ben Bradlee

Looking back 50 years to Camelot, day one.

Jack Kennedy was many things when he took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961: a glamorous figure, the youngest man ever elected to the office, the first Catholic president. He was also my friend.

He looked to me like a breath of fresh air, with his Hollywood good looks and impossibly attractive family--his wife with the velvety voice and their two gorgeous children. He lived a few doors down from me in Georgetown. We ate and drank together. We played golf. We'd been to Hyannis Port. I made him laugh. You never think a friend is going to make it all the way to the top. And there was a moment when it hit: my God, Jack is going to be president of the United States.

But who the hell knew what kind of president he'd be? Nobody. I sure didn't.

I was a NEWSWEEK correspondent who had relocated to Washington and didn't know a whole hell of a lot about American politics. As a junior reporter, I had drawn the junior presidential candidate, who happened to win.

Jack was fascinated by journalists because we tried to answer the question, "What's he like?" And when we would get together, we often gossiped about people we knew; our wives did the same. It was a respite, for him, from the constant grind of politics.

I remember asking him toward the end of 1959: "Do you really think--way down deep--that you can pull this thing off?" He paused and finally said yes, if he didn't make a single mistake.

Kennedy's inauguration was a singular moment of hope for the country. He was the first president born in the 20th century, and that was overwhelmingly important as he pledged to get the country moving. Americans believed in government then, in that time before Jack's murder, the quagmire of Vietnam, and the Watergate crimes of his old rival, Richard Nixon, took their toll on the public's trust.

Even then, on that snowy day, I had my doubts. Jack had no executive experience. The press by then was smitten with him. But could he deal with Congress, and with Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War?

People forget that Jack was already a World War II hero before his candidacy caught fire in 1960. He was the skipper of PT-109--his boat sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer--who swam for hours to pull the survivors to safety, a rope between his teeth. …