Laslo Boyd: Remembering John Kennedy

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Americans can be divided into two groups:  those who remember where they were when they heard the news that President John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas, and everybody else.  For the first group, Nov. 22, 1963, really was, to borrow from Don McLean, “the day the music died.”  Only 9/11 and the attack on Pearl Harbor rival it in terms of emotional impact on the national psyche.

Friday is the 50th anniversary of that awful day and an enormous outpouring of remembrances is appearing, from new books to newspaper accounts to radio and TV specials.  Despite a presidency that was cut short — or maybe in part because of that — and a record of accomplishments that was at best limited, generations that were not yet alive in 1963 seem fascinated by the 35th president of the United States.

Jill Abramson, in a recent New York Times Book Review article, noted that more than 10,000 books have been published about Kennedy.  I don’t think that’s a misprint, although it sure sounds like one. The books have come in waves and fall into different categories.

First among the many biographies and histories were a number by insiders such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Ted Sorensen that celebrated the tone and elegance of the Kennedy presidency and started spinning the myth of Camelot.  Later works unearthed disclosures previously unknown about Kennedy — particularly his health problems and his womanizing — that cast a less favorable light on those 1,000 days.

There are and continue to be numerous works on the assassination itself and a significant sub-category – conspiracy theories about who was really responsible.  According to a recent Gallup Poll, 61% of Americans believe more than one person was involved in Kennedy’s death. While that number has declined since the 1960s, it’s still remarkably high.  Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, may be an important source for some of the Gallup respondents.

A third group of books has looked at major decisions and evaluated them in both positive and negative terms.  The Bay of Pigs invasion — referred to by one author as the “perfect fiasco” — and the Cuban Missile Crisis — which has been cited as both an example of extraordinary crisis decision-making and of reckless risk-taking — have received volumes of attention.

Kennedy’s role in the early build-up of American involvement in the war in Vietnam has been described in detail and also has been the subject of intense speculation about what he might have done if he had lived.  There is, in fact, a veritable cottage industry of books that engage in “what if…” thinking, although all of them are nothing but guesses.

On the domestic side, the combination of his soaring rhetoric and his political caution with respect to civil rights also leave an incomplete picture.  He clearly was worried about alienating powerful Southerners in Congress and talked to some about tackling that thorny challenge in a second term.    Even in his caution, however, he was drawn into taking actions such as sending federal marshals to make sure James Meredith was able to attend the University of Mississippi.

Lyndon Johnson’s success in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, described so magnificently by Robert Caro, does in fact owe something to Kennedy’s placing of the issue on the national agenda as well as to LBJ’s belief that he had an obligation to that part of the Kennedy legacy.  Given Johnson’s extraordinary political skills, it seems fair to question whether Kennedy could have achieved the same result if his presidency had not been cut short.

By any objective assessment, Kennedy’s presidency was incomplete and, by many criteria, insubstantial.   Yet 74% of respondents in another recent Gallup Poll said that JFK will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president, a more positive review than any other post-World War II president receives.

How are we to understand this continuing fascination with Kennedy even in the face of 50 years of accounts that are often less than celebratory?  \The answer, I think, goes beyond either the circumstances of his death or the glamour and style associated with his time in office.

Kennedy was in many ways a linear predecessor of Barack Obama for his ability to inspire and to emphasize the powerful themes of hope and change. Kennedy’s presidency was, particularly for those who lived through that period, characterized by a belief in public service and the positive role of government. The creation of the Peace Corps and VISTA appealed to the best in human nature.

Often characterized as an avid Cold Warrior — as evidenced in part by his fascination with counter insurgency and his Cuban adventures — Kennedy near the end of his presidency began to talk about the need for reductions in nuclear weapons and a more sane approach to relations with the Soviet Union. In an era in which the threat of a nuclear war seemed very real to many, those were encouraging words.

Ultimately we can never know what a two-term Kennedy presidency might have looked like.  That so many people, including ones not yet born when he died, choose to look at him though a prism of hope and possibility may be a more important legacy than any tangible accomplishment.  

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.