On 4 December 1963, nine days after the funeral of John F Kennedy, Irish Ambassador to Washington, Thomas Kiernan, sat down to write a confidential report on the changed climate in Washington after Kennedy’s untimely death. Kiernan’s report captures the essence of America’s unforeseen political crisis and emphasises the degree of social and political flux that were ongoing at the time of Kennedy’s assassination.
Focussing on domestic more than foreign policy, Kiernan highlights just how essential Kennedy’s persona was in holding together a variety of factions within Democratic politics at that time. Even Kennedy’s legacy managed to act as a unifying glue in the immediate aftermath of his death. Furthermore, Kiernan clearly foresaw the challenges looming on the horizon for Lyndon B Johnson’s administration. As a southern Democrat pledged to maintaining continuity with the policies of the Kennedy administration on civil rights as well as other issues, Johnson’s most powerful asset facing into an election year was the shadow of his predecessor.
The clear contrast of leadership styles between Kennedy and Johnson is most evident in Kiernan’s report. Johnson’s ‘intensely personal character’ was radically different to Kennedy’s ‘personal power’. On a structural level, Johnson’s appointment of ‘doers’ rather than the ‘ideas men’ of the Kennedy era underlines the stark contrast between a presidency that was defined by youth, ambition, and image with one that settled down to undertaking political work in a more matter-of-fact way that arguably had little style but perhaps more legislative output than is sometimes remembered.
Finally, in this document we see the early construction of the Kennedy legacy. The first president to be assassinated since McKinley, JFK’s martyrology was virtually instantaneous. As Kiernan points out, the US public has never been inclined to make heroes out of presidents but, in Kennedy’s case, a need was fed, and a sacral image was constructed which reflected on his family more than on his successor.
Fifty years on, JFK remains one of the most iconic presidents of America’s twentieth century. In Irish popular memory he holds a unique place; his visit here in June of 1963 being seen as the homecoming of Ireland’s most successful son. From an Irish foreign policy perspective, what Kiernan’s report underlines is that, with the death of Kennedy, a door that had so recently been opened into the White House now closed. Although several subsequent presidents would make advances towards Ireland, none could match Kennedy in his genuine interest in, and sense of belonging to, Ireland.
Kiernan’s Washington posting would be his last. He retired in April 1964. His successor, William P. Fay, faced a political reality unrecognisable from that enjoyed by Kiernan during the golden era of Irish-American relations. The ‘depth of feeling’ so manifest in Kennedy’s sentiments towards Ireland simply would not feature in Johnson’s presidency. As America lost a leader, Ireland lost a rare and powerful ally. A moment had passed and arguably would not be seen again.