Newswise — RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, broke the hearts of Americans across the nation. As the 50th anniversary of the death of one of America’s most charismatic leaders approaches, scholars at the University of California, Riverside are available to discuss the importance of charisma in politics, JFK’s popularity with American poets, and his continuing role as a source of inspiration for playwrights and the arts in general.
Steven Axelrod, distinguished professor of English
Axelrod specializes in American literature and particularly American poetry. He is the founding president of The Robert Lowell Society and senior advisor to The Gertrude Stein Society.
President Kennedy took intellectuals and creative people seriously, quoting poets frequently and inviting them to the White House, he said. “Robert Frost and JFK had a very fruitful relationship when Kennedy was running for president and during the inaugural, but they broke apart later on, when Frost seemed to say critical things about JFK’s policies to Khrushchev. Robert Lowell’s relationship was less intense and more positive. Poets were generally enamored of JFK but became alienated from LBJ over the Vietnam War.”
JFK pursued policies that most poets agreed with, Axelrod added. “JFK was for civil rights, for example, whereas President Eisenhower was perceived as being neutral. He was a breath of fresh air after Eisenhower’s traditional, senior-citizen presidency.” He also noted that Kennedy has been steadily rising in historians’ estimation. “He’s generally in the top four in surveys of historians, and recently he emerged for the first time as No. 1, which is curious given the brevity of his presidency. He’s still the most exciting, compelling president in my lifetime, and I’m sure that’s not going to change. Frost (a conservative) and Lowell (a liberal) felt the same way.”
Vorris Nunley, associate professor of English
(951) 8 2 7- 1927
Nunley is interested in rhetoric and language and how they influence politics, culture, and what passes for knowledge and common sense. He is available to discuss how the content and style of candidates’ speeches may change to appeal to different constituencies, how some candidates may take celebrity status and convert it to social capital, and why some candidates, like JFK, have charisma and others do not.
“Charisma is so important in who can and can’t be president. If charisma’s not working, you don’t even get a hearing. One reason you don’t have women running for president is because charisma is masculinized.”
“For all of his foibles,” Nunley said, “President Kennedy and his administration did embody a notion of Camelot that echoed through that most American of tropes that connects President Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama: the Shining City on the Hill, a trope embodying American innocence, idealism, independence, exceptionalism, endurance, purpose and possibility. From the Cuban missile crisis to the American Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy and his brother captured, through policy and practice, a grounded hope to which the Obama administration only alludes.”
Deanne Stillman, professor in creative writing
M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, Palm Desert campus
Stillman is an award-winning author whose most recent work of narrative nonfiction, “Desert Reckoning,” is based on her Rolling Stone article “Mojave Manhunt.” Her books and plays have won numerous awards, among them the Spur Award for best Western nonfiction, the California Book Award Silver Medal and the Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2008 and 2001.
Stillman has written two one-act plays that examine truth versus myth in the life of President Kennedy, and the role of the outlaw in American culture. The plays will be performed on Nov. 23 in UC Riverside’s ARTSblock in downtown Riverside. The first is “Inside the White House,” which is about JFK and Marilyn Monroe in the afterlife. It takes place in a desert motel where God is the concierge, and explores what happens when two icons must spend an eternity as themselves. The second play is “Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald Praise Citizenship in the American Dreamtime,” in which two killers — one revered, one reviled — help each other through the night.