New Book Explores JFK’s Cultural Legacy

History Prof. Steven Watts

MU history professor Steven Watts says his curiosity about the popularity of President John F. Kennedy led to a new understanding of America’s 35th president, which he explores in his new book, JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

An MU history professor who specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the United States says his curiosity about the popularity of President John F. Kennedy led to a new understanding of America’s 35th president. Steven Watts’s new book, JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier (St. Martin’s Press 2016), was officially released this week.

“What I was fascinated with were the sources of JFK’s popularity, because he had tremendously high ratings in all of the polls,” Watts says. “Originally, I thought it was because of the assassination. But even before he was killed, his poll numbers were extraordinarily high, so I started to look at the reasons for those high approval ratings. What I discovered is it did not have much to do with politics, because he was a moderate, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road politician, so it had to be something else. And that’s when I started looking at Kennedy’s cultural image and cultural role and lighted on this business of masculinity.”

A Crisis of Masculinity

Watts says the genesis of his new book was a long article JFK confidant and friend Arthur Schlesinger wrote for Esquire in 1958 called “The Crisis of Masculinity.” “What has happened to the American male?” Schlesinger asks in the opening sentence. “For a long time, he seemed utterly confident in his manhood, sure of his masculine role in society, easy and definite in his sense of sexual identity.” But now, Schlesinger argued, the roles of men and women were merging both inside and outside of the household, with men taking on more household duties while women increasingly were working outside of the home. The sex change of Christine Jorgensen, the growing acceptance of homosexuality, and new books and plays about the insecurities of modern American men all seem to herald Schlesinger’s “crisis.”

Enter John F. Kennedy—a handsome, young war hero and U.S. Senator, who came from a large, prominent political family that relished displays of masculinity, from cutthroat family football games to sailing.

JFK book cover

“I think JFK’s whole shtick was to be a figure of vigor, and I think a lot of it was aimed at Eisenhower—the ‘old man,’ the ‘old general.’ I think JFK was very self-conscious about projecting this image of a strong, young, masculine, vigorous man,” Watts says. He says Kennedy was very contemptuous of suburban life as depicted in contemporary books such as The Lonely Crowd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Watts says these books, along with Schlesinger’s essay, were complaints about American men, following the end of World War II, who were trapped in suburbia, trapped in bureaucracy, and were being emasculated by modern women. 

Harnessing Cultural Forces

Watts says Kennedy purposefully surrounded himself with virile male icons such as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Hugh Hefner, astronaut John Glenn, and author Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. He says Kennedy’s relentless philandering also fed into the president’s manhood mystique.

“Every time Jackie Kennedy left the White House to go to Virginia to the farm, the White House became party central—women, hookers, and mistresses of all kinds in the White House,” Watts says.

Watts says he spent about three years conducting research for his new book. He pored over primary sources that JFK wrote or had written for him at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston (now digitized and online), he reviewed books, magazine, and newspaper articles of the era, and he studied JFK’s circle of cultural figures involved in this “masculinity crusade,” such as Norman Mailer, who wrote a famous piece on JFK in Esquire that helped solidify JFK’s image as a “man’s man.”

“I think the reader will come away with a new understanding of Kennedy as not just a political figure but as a cultural figure who is central in using culture as a tool to boost his popularity and his standing,” Watts says. He says JFK became the model for the American view of what the leader of our country should be, and he says Ronald Reagan and Barak Obama have had similar successes in using culture—celebrity, Hollywood, image-making—to support their standing in public life.

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