John F. Kennedy may have been the youngest president elected to office, but he displayed wisdom beyond his years and forward-thinking ahead of his time. Today, on what would have been his 101st birthday, we examine the ways. 

Like many Irish Americans, I was raised with an abiding sense of JFK as “our president.” My grandparents owned a portrait of him, and all my relatives who were old enough can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the tragic news of his assassination.  

Developing a fuller sense of who he was as a president and a person has come more gradually, and the most detailed portrait yet took shape during a recent visit to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in his native Boston.

The Library and Museum, located at Columbia Point, right on the water just next to the University of Massachusetts at Boston campus, offers the perfect setting for learning and reflection. Light streams in through the glass atrium walls, boasting a view of the Boston skyline and shoreline as it curves around Old Harbor. Radiating out of that center point are the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions, which tell the story of JFK’s life and legacy.

It was there, among the photographs and artifacts, the re-created Oval Office and White House hallway, the video clips and speech transcripts, that a new sense of JFK emerged: Kennedy the visionary.

Visiting the Museum and Library will give you the full story, but the following are just some of JFK’s beliefs and actions that made him a forward-thinking leader.

He fostered peace when others pushed for war

The 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, from October 16 - 28, 1962, were full of tension as the US and USSR were locked in a standoff over the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba.

To strategize, JFK called together a group of advisors, known as the Executive Committee, or ExComm, to help him assess the situation against Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

A short film at the JFK Library and Museum on the Cuban Missile contains minutes from the ExCom meetings, which JFK secretly recorded.

At one point, the most stunning exchange takes place.

General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, tells Kennedy that a failure to invade Cuba would be almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich before World War II and that the blockade tactic Kennedy had chosen to pursue - not taking an aggressive approach, but blocking additional Russian vessels from reaching Cuba - would be perceived as weak.

“You’re in a pretty bad fix," he warns the President.

According to historians, JFK was furious with the General, but he held his anger and simply replied, "You're in there with me."

JFK knew that the situation was much bigger than him and Khrushchev, bigger than ExCom, bigger than the US, the USSR, and Cuba, and he did everything in his power to de-escalate the world from the brink of nuclear war - successfully.

He understood the power of a new medium and a relatable style

The Kennedy-Nixon debates of the 1960 presidential campaign were the first televised presidential debates in US history, and they greatly helped Kennedy, the younger - and less experienced - candidate, who also had the public’s distrust of his Catholic faith to overcome.

As the exhibit on the debates reveals, Nixon was urged by his team, including President Eisenhower, to decline the offer; but he accepted, confident in his ability and experience.

During that first debate, Nixon’s gray suit blended into the background of the black and white broadcast, whereas Kennedy had come dressed in a navy suit to combat glare. Nixon turned his gaze to the reporters watching on the sidelines, whereas Kennedy stared directly into the camera, addressing the viewers at home. While both had words of substance and strength, these pivotal telegenic maneuvers on Kennedy’s part helped win him millions more supporters that night, and ultimately helped win him the election.

As he said himself, "It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide."

Once in office, Kennedy continued to use this medium to connect with the American people, giving the first live televised press conferences.

He held his first one - live, with no delays - on January 25, 1961, shortly after his inauguration, and it attracted 65 million viewers.

From then until his death, he averaged one press conference every 16 days, with an average of 18 million viewers each. Highlights are on display at the JFK Library & Museum, in a room designed to look like a White House press conference from Kennedy’s era.

He fought against discrimination

The Kennedy years saw landmark progress in civil rights and religious freedom. With the former, Kennedy was accused of reacting too slowly in his campaign and first two years in office, but would ultimately become the first president to address civil rights as not only a legal issue but also a moral one.

On June 11, 1963, Kennedy gave a live televised address to the American people on civil rights, which lay the groundwork for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said, "It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

Footage of this speech airs in the JFK Library and Museum’s Oval Office re-creation, and Kennedy’s hastily jotted notes for the speech – the last few minutes of which he gave from the heart rather than prepared remarks – are on display in the 100 Milestones and Mementos exhibition.

Of course, religious discrimination was personal for Kennedy, as he was the first (and to this day only) Catholic elected president.

Kennedy had faced immense anti-Catholic prejudice and widespread fear-mongering that electing a Catholic would mean the Pope had a direct line to the White House.

In September of 1960, he faced a call from 150 Protestant ministers to denounce his Catholic faith. In response, he delivered a landmark address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. It was a defense of not only himself, but also of the need for separation of church and state and freedom of religion.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him,” he declared.

He was determined to see Americans make it to space and win on the global stage

After Russia beat the US into outer space and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in April 1961, Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and NASA officials to figure out an area of space exploration in which America could succeed at first. The answer? Landing on the moon.

First, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. proved America could launch man into space when the Freedom 7 space capsule successfully launched into sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961. The very capsule in which he traveled to space is on display at the JFK Library and Museum, and it’s fascinating to see its size and take in all the wiring.

Then, in an address before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy asked for the funding to put man on the moon. Though he would not live to see it, his goal was achieved before the decade was out, when the Apollo 11 mission of July 20, 1969 was successful.

The decision was a gamble, and it was taken to give America a shot at winning on the global stage as the Cold War played on. In his famous speech at Rice University in Texas on September 12, 1962, JFK said:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

He envisioned a larger role for women in politics

On November 24, 1957, three days before Caroline Kennedy, the first child of John F. and Jackie Kennedy, was born, then-Senator Kennedy did an interview with Martin Agronsky for his NBC program “Look Here.” Towards the end of that interview, currently on display as part of the JFK 100: Mementos and Milestones exhibition, Agronsky asks Kennedy if he has a son whether he would encourage a political career for him.

Kennedy’s answer?

“Yes, and I hope if I had a daughter I might encourage her to play some part. I don’t think it should be confined to men only.”

America still has yet to elect a female president. Yet there was JFK, 61 years ago, envisioning a world of opportunity for his daughter.  

There was a myriad of other ways in which President Kennedy was a leader ahead of his time, from his founding of the Peace Corps to his immigration and tax policies. The best way to learn about JFK is to go see for yourself how he became the leader he was, how the people in his life supported him on that journey, and his legacy that endures 55 years after his death.

Proudly produced in partnership with the JFK Library Foundation. Plan your visit here.