It was on a Friday the 13th, 60 years ago, that John F. Kennedy arrived at the Quonset Point National Guard Air Station on Narragansett Bay and boarded the presidential yacht Honey Fitz for a weekend cruise. The president was joined by his wife, Jacqueline, and their good friends Benjamin and Antoinette Bradlee, as well as Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell and his wife, Nuala.

Thomas M. Atkins and Robert L. Knudsen also came aboard. They were navy photographers, and, using rare color film, they vividly caught the president as young and trim and, in the Ray-Ban sunglasses and leather jacket he’d later wear, movie-star handsome. When he stared into the camera, it brought to mind what Gene Tierney, an unparalleled Hollywood beauty, wrote about their first meeting: “Literally, my heart skipped.” In 10 weeks, he would be dead.

Jackie and guests board the Honey Fitz in Newport, Rhode Island, in September 1963.

The Honey Fitz was 92.3 feet long, wooden and sleek but sluggish on the sea. John F. Kennedy named it in honor of his grandfather, a two-timing two-term mayor of Boston whose career was aborted by an extramarital affair with what was then known as a cigarette girl. She was approximately his daughter’s age and had the tabloid-perfect moniker of Toodles.

When Kennedy stared into the camera, it brought to mind what Gene Tierney, an unparalleled Hollywood beauty, said when they first met: “Literally, my heart skipped.”

On that Friday, the president strode up the gangplank, taking a salute from a navy deckhand. He was 46 years old and officially, in robust good health. Still, almost everything about his appearance was a lie. His back was his enemy. He suffered from Addison’s disease. He’d already been given the last rites of the Catholic Church at least two times.

The camera found Jackie Kennedy smiling and talking animatedly, but of what we don’t know. It had been 10 years since she married the junior senator from Massachusetts, the wild and wildly rich Jack Kennedy, but just over a month since their child Patrick died in his 39th hour of life. She had spent most of the summer at a place called Squaw Island, which is close to the storied Kennedy compound, at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. If she was under stress, the camera did not notice. She smoked. She talked. She smiled. The First Lady wore slacks and, as always, a mask of pleasant impenetrability.

President John F. Kennedy, Jackie, and friends sail off Newport less than three months before his assassination.

At lunch, Kennedy took the center seat. The camera panned the table. It settled on Bradlee, then the Washington-bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. He was a latecomer to Kennedy’s circle, a journalist and therefore only warily trusted. He was Kennedy’s onetime Georgetown neighbor, a Boston Brahmin, poised, charming, impeccably schooled—St. Mark’s, Harvard—but, importantly, a World War II navy veteran. Like Kennedy, he’d seen combat in the Pacific.

Antoinette Bradlee sat next to her husband. She was a Pinchot, of a grand and politically active Pennsylvania family—wealthy reformers, conservationists, and, in “Tony,” artistically inclined. She was a pretty, vivacious woman, a closer friend to Jackie than Ben is to Jack, if only because the president had more secrets. One was that on the previous May 29, while celebrating his 46th birthday on yet another yacht, the Sequoia, Kennedy followed Tony to the restroom belowdecks and made a strenuous but clumsy pass at her.

Mary Meyer, left. Her sister, Antoinette “Tony” Bradlee, right, on a visit to the Kennedy retreat in Virginia in 1962.

Another was that he was carrying on a love affair with Tony’s sister, Mary Meyer, a Georgetown artist and the ex-wife of a former high-ranking C.I.A. official. She kept a sketchbook in which she recorded colors and ideas, and in the margins she scribbled shards of scandal—her affair with a married man. Less than a year after Kennedy’s assassination, Mary Meyer herself was fatally shot as she walked along the C&O Canal Towpath, at the base of Georgetown. After her murder, the sketchbook was discovered and so, after a glance, was the identity of her lover.

President Kennedy on the Honey Fitz.

The couples on the Honey Fitz that day represented the American ruling class. They are all connected by school or club or law firm to everyone else who matters. The very body of water they sailed, Narragansett Bay, is a Gilded Age pond, emptying into the tributaries of the American rich—south as far as Southampton and north to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod.

The First Lady wore slacks and, as always, a mask of pleasant impenetrability.

The Kennedys were married at the nearby resort of Newport —a reception at Jacqueline’s childhood summer home, the baronial Hammersmith Farm, on Narragansett Bay, owned by her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss. The house had 28 rooms; the farm, 300 acres. The wedding was a cut-away affair for the men, rustling gowns for the women, greenswards to the sea, a cake four feet high, 1,200 guests, and Meyer Davis’s society orchestra playing the soothing songs of the era. The bride and groom stepped out to “I Married an Angel.”

Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell and Jackie on the cruise.

Earlier that day, a more select group of 800 had crowded into St. Mary’s Church nearby to watch Richard James Cushing, an archbishop on his way to a cardinal’s red cap, officiate. Four other priests assisted, one of them being the former president of Notre Dame University. A message from Pope Pius XIII was read. The Kennedys were American Borgias, rich, intelligent, politically powerful, and accomplished sinners.

On the Honey Fitz, Atkins and Knudson were taking it all in. They captured the images that later become ingredients for Jackie Kennedy’s retrospective idyll of Camelot—a beautiful family, a glamorous presidency, but, at the center, a man whose policies were sometimes as anarchic as his private life.

From a silent motion picture of President Kennedy’s Newport weekend activities, September 12–15, 1963.

As the Honey Fitz serenely cruised, Vietnam was going to hell. The 750 U.S. military advisers of Kennedy’s first presidential year had somehow become 22,000 in his third—with more on the way. Kennedy was beginning to see the looming debacle, but he was boxed in by his own stridently anti-Communist rhetoric and his endorsement of the domino theory. He barely won the presidency in 1960; abandoning South Vietnam might cost him a second term. He was in a fix. He’d written a book about political daring, the acclaimed 1956 Profiles in Courage, but when it came to censoring the malodorous Senator Joseph McCarthy, Kennedy took a powder. Eleanor Roosevelt, an early Kennedy critic but a later admirer, is often credited with a memorable barb: “I wish that Kennedy had a little less profile and more courage.”

Lee Harvey Oswald was out of camera range. He was in New Orleans, living in a dilapidated house at 4905 Magazine Street. That very September, Oswald had been busy. He visited the Soviet and Cuban Embassies in Mexico City. He wanted to defect to Cuba. To the outside world, he looked aimless, but he had plans. A relative had found him a job in Dallas. He was about to move again. He had a mission and a mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. It cost $29.95.

Fidel Castro talks to the Mexican ambassador in 1964. Castro’s brother Raul is to the ambassador’s right, and Che Guevara is to Castro’s left.

Fidel Castro was also on the move. He showed up at a Mexican Embassy reception in Havana the very week the Honey Fitz cruised Narragansett Bay. The Cuban dictator was an unacceptable affront to the Kennedy administration and a lingering embarrassment after the failed Bay of Pigs operation. He’d established a Soviet-backed Communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, just 90 miles from the Florida Keys. Kennedy vowed to oust him. The C.I.A. tried to kill him, passing along six poison pellets to anti-Castro Cubans and even enlisting the Mafia, which sent hit men to the island. Nothing worked, and Castro had had enough. “Let Kennedy and his brother Robert watch out,” he said. “They, too, could become targets of assassination.”

The 750 U.S. military advisers of Kennedy’s first presidential year have somehow become 22,000 in his third.

Carlos Marcello, the Mob boss of New Orleans, needed no encouragement to kill Kennedy. Two years earlier, Robert F. Kennedy, the newly appointed attorney general, summarily deported Marcello and dropped him in Guatemala. The mobster worked his way back to New Orleans, determined to get even. He was a powerful and immensely proud man, and he’d been humbled, humiliated. The House Select Committee on Assassinations would later conclude that Marcello had the “motive, means and opportunity to have President John F. Kennedy assassinated.”

New Orleans mobster Carlos Marcello had a grudge against the Kennedys.

In Birmingham, Alabama, on day two of the Honey Fitz cruise, four Black girls prepared for their big moment. On Sunday, they would sing in the choir of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Birmingham was earning a nickname—Bombingham. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair would have had one day to live. None of them were over 14. One was only 11.

Back on the Honey Fitz lunch was over and Kennedy moved to the boat’s stern, where it was Sunday; the sky was gloomy and there was a snap to the air. Kennedy put on a leather jacket with the presidential seal on the left breast. He wore tortoiseshell Ray-Ban sunglasses. No president before or since looked like Jack Kennedy looked that day.

Ben Bradlee and his wife, Tony, on the cruise with the Kennedys.

Before dawn that morning, four white men warily approached the 16th Street church and placed 19 sticks of dynamite under the side steps. They were members of the Ku Klux Klan. They set a timer, and left. By 10:30 that morning, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry were far from the church.

In the robing room, the four girls primped, and awaited their call. At 10:22 a man telephoned the church. “Three minutes,” he said, and hung up. Just a minute later, the bomb ripped through the building. The girls died instantly. On the Honey Fitz, the phone rang with the awful news.

The family of Carol Robertson, a 14-year-old Black girl killed by the Ku Klux Klan in the September 15, 1963, church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

For Kennedy, civil rights was a political dilemma. To win a second term in 1964, he needed the white vote in the South. For this reason, Kennedy refrained from a robust effort at voting-rights legislation. His strategy, as had often been the case, was caution. Birmingham is where caution failed. The city’s public-safety commissioner, the grandiloquently named Theophilus Eugene Connor—better, and more accurately, known as Bull—turned dogs and fire hoses on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators and stepped back to allow a mob to beat them senseless. An appalled nation watched on television. Kennedy was forced to act. He sent in the National Guard.

To some, John Kennedy was all surface, a media concoction whose reality was troubling. And yet the image was also the reality. Kennedy’s demeanor, his coolness, his glamour, his wit, and his erudition beckoned the idealistic and talented to his side and to government service in general. Like the brash Teddy Roosevelt before him, he raised an army of young people brimming with idealism, called them the Peace Corps, and sent them abroad not to take some San Juan Hill but to conquer ignorance and disease in the world’s poorest places. He made government—governing—exciting and fashionable. He loosened wit and irony on an appreciative America. At the White House, he toasted the Nobel laureates and had the aged and resolutely anti-Fascist Pablo Casals play Mendelssohn. He set the stirring goal of sending an American to the Moon and vowed—after reading a review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America in The New Yorker—to fight poverty.

Much of my generation wanted to board the Honey Fitz. Kennedy was the scion of great privilege, but he yammered the talk of meritocracy, which was the ladder many of us climbed. He exuded youth’s faith in the efficacy and utility of education. Eisenhower, his predecessor, read paperback Westerns and surrounded himself with corporate plutocrats familiar with the challenges of Augusta’s 13th hole (par 5), not with the vicissitudes of ordinary American life. Kennedy, in contrast, read well and widely. He wrote, too, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his Profiles in Courage.

Kennedy surrounded himself with men of dashing intellect. And yet this government of high achievers blundered into the Vietnam quagmire, as if almost no one noticed that the swamp was encroaching. The Vietnamese Communists had only recently defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu—a fixed battle, a debacle, a warning. George Ball over at the State Department was one of the few Vietnam dissenters. He saw the American future in the French past and warned Kennedy that the 16,000 American “trainers” would soon become 300,000 ground troops. “George, you’re just crazier than hell,” the president responded. “That just isn’t going to happen.”

President Kennedy’s last weekend cruise, off Newport.

But it did. And so, around the time the Honey Fitz was shoving off for Newport, I ducked the draft by a day and enlisted in the 102nd Engineers, a National Guard unit. By Memorial Day of 1964, I was at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, feverish with pneumonia I had picked up at Fort Dix, looking over my shoulder at the approaching war in Vietnam. John Kennedy was dead, and now the war that George Ball predicted was all around me. There was talk of Vietnam in the PX, in the commissary, at the base movie theater, and on the chow line. My barracks-mate, a tough guy from South Philadelphia, cried out in his sleep: “Mama, I don’t want to go to Vietnam!”

Just a minute later, the bomb ripped through the building. The girls died instantly. On the Honey Fitz, the phone rang with the awful news.

I did not want to go, either. When it came right down to it, I considered just running away, fleeing north to Canada or over the ocean to Sweden or Denmark, perceived Edens where blondes were aplenty and Vietnam refuseniks welcome. I never had to make that decision, yet Vietnam and the constant call-up of reservists stalked me for the next five and one half years. As a reporter years later, I accompanied a one-armed Vietnam vet to the amputee ward of Walter Reed Hospital and nearly fainted when a patient opened his robe to me and showed he had nothing there. Ever since, I’ve cherished my privilege. Ever since, I’ve mourned the mangled and the dead.

The Kennedys and daughter Caroline, in the front seat, drive the Bradlees to the boat, September 12, 1963.

John Kennedy put me in that fix—a wasteful war conceived and executed by men David Halberstam indelibly called “the best and the brightest.” Their policies wrenched the nation, causing spasms of riots, demonstrations, and denunciations. Maybe J.F.K. would have pulled out of Vietnam, as some have suggested, but maybe he wouldn’t. The place was like glue. Lyndon Johnson got stuck to it and then Richard Nixon did the same until it ended under Gerald Ford with frantic people clinging to helicopter skids.

But if J.F.K.’s reputation has suffered, it was his own fault—the stumble into Vietnam and the gaudy parade of mistresses, including the 19-year-old former Marion Fahnestock (later Mimi Alford). She was a Miss Porter grad (just like Jackie), escorted to Jackie’s White House bedroom and there hurriedly taken by a preoccupied president of the United States of America. From that day on, no longer a virgin, she was one of the president’s lovers, and for well over a year, Alford maintained in her book, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, he did not once kiss her.

And yet in an era of Trump, Kennedy emerges from his failures—both personal and policy—in resplendent contrast to the moral slob who is our recent president and who, appallingly, is the choice of many Republicans to be our next one. Kennedy had his women, sure, but none were porn actresses. Kennedy had his lies, but lying was not his default mode. His speeches soared, and to compare his inaugural address to Trump’s is to compare the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V to the chest-thumping of King Kong.

I still admire John F. Kennedy. I have come to admire his veneer—that business of grace under pressure, the impressive wartime bravery—the look, the pose. When I was young, he was the sort of man I wanted to be. I cannot imagine any man wanting to be like Trump, pointing to him as a model for his son. It seemed right that John Kennedy became a president. It seems wrong that he did not become a great one.

The Kennedys arrive in Dallas on November 22, 1963, hours before his assassination.

By the time Alford published her book, I was a good friend of Benjamin Bradlee’s and his wife Sally Quinn, and I occasionally discussed Kennedy, and I came to appreciate how gilded that era had been for him—buddies with POTUS, chic intimate dinners in the White House, an easy affability, the very center of Washington’s social and political life. They were men of a certain generation, and combat was their rite of passage. They had won the war, won the world. Men admired them, women loved them. I certainly admired Ben. I loved him, too.

But from that cruise on Narragansett Bay to three squeezes of the trigger in Dallas was less than 10 weeks. Lee Harvey Oswald, spotted over and over again by his fellow workers at the Book Depository, had scrunched behind some boxes on sixth floor with a clear view of the presidential motorcade. By nightfall, Bradlee was at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, summoned by Jackie. They embraced, her “pink suit stained with her husband’s blood.” Kennedy was dead. Camelot was born.

Jacqueline Kennedy cradles her husband seconds after the fatal shot.

Thereafter, the drip-drip-drip of revelations tarnished Kennedy’s image—woman after woman after woman. Bradlee had always known some of it—his own father had called Kennedy a “fearful girler.” The stories were impossible to ignore. The 21st century was calling the 20th to account, and then came Mimi Alford, with her necklace of proper pearls, offering an account that rang true because it was true. Bradlee felt betrayed, as if Kennedy had cheated on him too.

One day in 2012 we sat in his study and talked about Kennedy … Kennedy and Alford. The late-afternoon sun streamed into the room. It was winter and the light was dying fast. Bradlee conceded all. Bradlee acknowledged all. Bradlee went somber.

And then he brightened. “Ah,” he said, “but you should have seen him.”

On the Honey Fitz that chilled September weekend, Kennedy had little time to live. It’s as if the boat was serenely and obliviously cruising toward thrashing rapids. Kennedy looked one last time into the camera.

John F. Kennedy is gone. Look again. John F. Kennedy never left.

Richard Cohen is a former op-ed columnist for The Washington Post