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JFK: The Untold Story


By Michael R. Grunwald

JFK was not Jesus Christ--although they both did have powerful daddies.

I HANDED the application to Keith W. Light, a senior admissions officer for Harvard, and he began to read it. And then he began to grin. And then he began to giggle and make funny snorting noises.

When he finished, he shook his head, looked me in the eye and delivered his verdict:

"Pretty lame."

THE DOCUMENT in question, I am pleased to report, was not my Harvard application. It was the Harvard application of a guy by the name of John F. Kennedy '40. And Light was right. It's pretty lame.

Kennedy, of course, was the son of Joseph P. Kennedy '12. When Kennedy fils applied to Harvard in May 1935, Kennedy pere was the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Which was cool for Kennedy fils. If you think having a big-shot Harvard-educated daddy would help a kid get into Harvard today (and oh, it would, it would), suffice to say that in 1935, when the old-boy Brahmin network ruled the roost, when almost everyone who applied to Harvard was accepted anyway, Kennedy bloodlines rendered the application process somewhat unnecessary. A recommendation from Harry Hopkins, chairman of FDR's Federal Employment Relief Administration, probably didn't hurt JFK's chances much, either. He could get away with an application that, as Light said, "looks like he just filled it out on his way to school or something."

Of course, Harvard has come a long way since 1935. So I promise not to use JFK's pitiful application as yet another excuse to trash Harvard's still-lenient legacy admissions policies--as long as you promise not to use it to make loopy pro-legacy-favoritism arguments ("Well, Chauncy Fumpleroy III doesn't deserve to get in, but neither did JFK, and he did OK with his life..."). Deal?

Instead, let's just consider this application another chapter in the ever-imploding Kennedy mythology. No matter how many religious allusions Oliver Stone can cram into three hours of religious illusions, John Kennedy was not Jesus Christ--although both did have powerful daddies. JFK was painfully slow on civil rights. He was no Vietnam dove. And for what it's worth, his principal trashed "Jack's lack of intellectual drive" on his application to Harvard.

I suppose it isn't worth much. But there's something about reading that the future leader of the free world "can be relied upon to do enough to pass" that makes one want to giggle and make funny snorting noises.

THE WARREN REPORT, in just 37 trillion pithy pages, managed to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that JFK was dead. JFK's application, 10 pages long, demonstrates equally conclusively that he would have been negged by Harvard in the '90s, Kennedy name and all. "No chance," Light said. "I wish they were all this easy."

George St. John, principal of The Choate School, did have nice things to say about JFK's "intelligence, likableness and popularity." But the rest of St. John's "recommendation" was a veritable symphony of faint-praise damnation. Here's a typical example of his wild enthusiasm for Kennedy--part 3(f) for those of you keeping score at home:

Q: Has he exhibited special mental qualifications in any way, or unusual ability in one or more subjects?

A: No.

Overall, St. John portrayed JFK as a totally unmotivated student: "Jack has rather superior mental ability without the deep interest in his studies or the mature viewpoint that demands of him his best effort all the time. He can be relied upon to do enough to pass."

Usually. According to his transcript, Kennedy only failed two out of 16 classes at Choate. Then again, he also posted two 65's and a 67. His best grade was an 81 in sophomore English. He ranked 65th in a class of 110. You get the picture.

"He sure wasn't too good at math...or French...or Latin," Light mused as he studied the transcript. "Third quarter of his class. If something like this came in now, forget it."

Without a doubt, the most entertaining aspect of Kennedy's application is his hastily scribbled essay. Light graciously called it "flimsy." There is nothing I could possibly say about it that would be funnier than reproducing it in its entirety:

Q: Why do you wish to come to Harvard? The Committee will expect a careful answer to this question. (Obnoxious italics mine.)

A: The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better back ground [sic] and a better Liberal [sic] education then [sic] any other university. I have always wanted to go there, so I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a "Harvard man" is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerly [sic] hope I shall attain.

ALTHOUGH I DO NOT believe that JFK was a particularly great president, or that he was killed by a massive conspiracy of evil people that included everybody except for The American Public, I am entirely convinced that he was an intelligent man. Even though his application to Harvard sucked. Even though his grades at Harvard were mostly gentleman's C's. Even though the authorship of his senior thesis remains under dispute to this day.

College applications just don't tell us much about the applicants 55 years down the road. They do, however, make for amusing retrospective giggle-and-snortfests. Who knows? Maybe some Crimson brat 50 years down the road will dig up President Grunwald's pitiful Harvard application.

Hey, don't laugh. To be president is an enviable distinction, one that I sincerly hope I shall attain..

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