Next year will be a big one for John F. Kennedy fans.


On what would have been his 100th birthday, there’ll be plenty of hoopla surrounding the legacy of our 35th President. But other than nostalgia for an era when people still believed in a “perfect” president (were we ever so innocent?), why exactly does the Kennedy mystique endure?

Sure, the was handsome and rich and there was the whole Camelot thing. But it wasn’t like his political career was astounding.

He talked about going to the moon and dodged a nuclear war, but that’s not why politicians love comparing themselves (or their favorite candidates) to him. It can’t be the sex, can it?

Okay, maybe it’s a little bit the sex.

Steven Watts, Ph.D., a professor of history at the University of Missouri, takes a different approach on dissecting Kennedy’s continuing allure in his new book, JFK and the Masculine Mystique.

He examines Kennedy as a cultural figure rather than a political one. Kennedy, Watts writes, promised to “revive the modern American man as youthful and individualistic, cool and vigorous, masculine and urban, tough-minded and athletic, and a sexual conquistador.”

In other words, everything every man in the history of humankind wished he could be.

Men’s Health: Could we ever have another John F. Kennedy? Or have we become too cynical?

Steven Watts: I think we probably could. A man of his charm and rhetorical gifts and shrewd political judgment and good looks and sophisticated style, I think it’d still carry a lot of water in modern politics. But there’s one giant caveat: the 24-hour news cycle, and the way the media has just saturated our culture. Given Kennedy’s philandering, he would be in enormous trouble very, very quickly.

There’s a question your book didn’t answer. Could Kennedy have resisted Tweeting a dick pic?

[Laughs.] We’ll never know. But at the same time, he was a master of image manipulation, and he surrounded himself with people who were masters in helping him distract from what was actually happening and create this magical, romantic ideal. It’s easy to see why people fell in love with him. He represented the new frontier, beautiful young people coming to power in the new age.

Which was bullshit.

Well, it wasn’t all bullshit. But it certainly wasn’t the entire truth.

In some ways, don’t we all have a little Kennedy in us?

How so?

On the Internet, everybody tries to create these ideal but fictional versions of themselves.

That’s true. It’s very human to want to control that presentation of self. With somebody like Kennedy, who was very much in the pubic eye, everything had to be in shiny capital letters. We all do the same thing to a smaller extent. We create a version of ourselves as we want the world to see us.

Our careers and family lives aren’t as perfect as they seem on Facebook.

Some of us are better at creating our public images than others.

We can’t all be Kennedy.

No. But for me, the big question of Kennedy, of how he relates to our lives right now, is how authentic are these inauthentic lives? Is everything you give to the world a big fraud, or is there some grain of truth in there? How wide is the gap between the constructed self and the real self? Kennedy was very much on the forefront of that.

Did he ever find the right balance?

I don’t know. I think Kennedy raises questions for men about how much image really matters. When you look at Kennedy, it seems like he had it all. He had wealth, he had movie star good looks, he had a beautiful wife, he had a wonderful family, he had millions of people who adored him, and he was the leader of the greatest country in the world at a very crucial time. Here’s a guy who had everything that you could possibly imagine.

Yet he still led a double life.

Exactly! With all the philandering, you have to wonder how happy he really was in his marriage. He constructed this perfect image of the happy family man. But maybe if he had spent less time protecting his image and more on figuring out what was happening in his marriage, well, I don’t know.

You wrote in the book that he had a “guilt free conscious” about his infidelity. You don’t think he thought, on any level, that he was doing something wrong?

His father was an open philanderer, and that’s what Kennedy knew from a young age about male behavior. The combination of his wealth, his unique position in American society, and the fact that he was so good lucking and charming, it made cheating a little too easy for him.

We may never find out how many lovers he had.

I really don’t know that we will. Apparently he could have any woman he wanted at any time just by clicking his finger. This became the reality for him, and I don’t think he thought twice about it.

Do you think Kennedy gave generations of men permission to cheat?

Because he got away with it?

And he got away with it so spectacularly. His sex life was basically hiding in plain view. It was so obvious that he was boning everything that moved. But his wife never divorced him. There were never consequences.

I think there’s some truth to that. To some extent, Kennedy had a bigger cultural influence than a political one. So it’s entirely possible that men would look at him and say, “If Jack can get away with that, why can’t I?”

He’s like the devil on our shoulder. “Come on, get a mistress. Your wife won’t care. She’ll just suffer with quiet dignity.”

As I did research for this book, I couldn’t believe the sheer scope and recklessness of his sex life. I heard stories of how the president, several times during his administration, would hole up in hotel with prostitutes. In this day and age, it’s just a mind-blower to think that the leader of the greatest country in the free world would get away with something like that.

Is there anything about Kennedy that makes him a good role model for men? Anything at all worth emulating?

He had a certain cool detachment that was really remarkable.

In politics, or explaining all those hotel receipts to Jackie?

In everything, but especially when it came to politics. He could take a contentious issue and draw the emotion out of it.

Wow. That seems unthinkable these days.

Nobody does that anymore.

An elected official who says, “Okay, let’s all calm down and be rational about this?”

Kennedy was a cool customer. We could all stand to be a little more like that, to not always be driven by our emotions.

[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the November 2016 issue of Men’s Health.]