Fifty years ago, 22 November 1963, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding through Dallas, Texas with his wife Jacqueline. Only 1,036 days after taking office the young President was gone, yet he endures in the collective memory, the ‘what if’ in American history.
Kennedy’s legacy has been the subject of constant scrutiny but arguably his murder has received more coverage with thousands of books, films, and documentaries revisiting and revising who was responsible. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that 61% of Americans disagree with the official report into the events, the Warren Commission, which states that Lee Harvey Oswald, a loner ex-marine, acted alone. The list of suspects and accompanying theories is endless: the Mafia, the CIA, the Federal Government, and even President Lyndon B. Johnson. And the public consciousness is littered with questions and possibilities – a second shooter, the grassy knoll, the School Book Depository – while no piece of footage having been more scrutinised than the Zapruder film and the infamous frame 313 showing the fatal shot.
As time moved on, the trauma of ’63 began to heal and public perception of Kennedy and his legacy evolved, aided by the release of new information and scores of revisionist historians taking up their pens in the late 70s and 80s. The vigorous, brave and heroic Kennedy that emerged from hagiographic accounts of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, became the ill, and flawed womanizer, whose aide, Dave Powers, lined women up at the White House – from 19 year old interns to Marilyn Monroe. But the question has always remained: what might have been?
Though, his supporters would still hark back to the promise of his unfinished life. Kennedy’s presidential record has fared little better in the years since his death. The question of Vietnam has loomed large over his legacy; by 1963, Kennedy had escalated the number of troops deployed to 16,000. Having never taken a definitive stance on military intervention in the region, he left it open to interpretation. Lyndon Johnson, claiming to be finishing Kennedy’s work, would drive America into one of the bloodiest conflicts in its history. Of course, Kennedy supporters are adamant that it would have been different, but Johnson’s men, were Kennedy’s too since he retained virtually the entire Kennedy team of national security advisers.
Similarly with domestic policy, Kennedy’s record does not measure up to his posthumous reputation. On civil rights, the defining issue of the 1960s, Kennedy was slow to act. Despite promises in his campaign, and all his rhetoric, it was only in 1963 that he finally faced the issue with any serious intent. And even then, despite using the National Guard to desegregate Schools, his detractors claim he lacked both the drive and the know-how to work Congress the way Johnson could.
However, it was Kennedy’s cool headed crisis management that saved the United States from the brink of nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis and paved the way for a series of treaties that would limit and reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something that his supporters adroitly use as an indicator of things to come.
Kennedy brought celebrity to centre stage. In addition to simply being the President, he was regularly marketed as a heroic leader. From the beginning his image was highly controlled, firstly by his father – former Hollywood mogul and Ambassador to the UK, Joseph P. Kennedy – who understood stardom and then Kennedy himself. His first book While England Slept (1940) soared to bestseller status because his father bought thousands of copies and LIFE editorials framed his carefully crafted public life.
He was not ignorant of the use of a friendly media. He knew what aspects of his life would make “a good Sunday spread”, he was able to use his wit and humour to court an adoring public in live press conferences – the first president to do so – while a very willing media remained silent on his scurrilous private life and flagrant womanizing. Even after his death, Jackie took up the mantle of his image and ensured his legacy would be secured. In an interview with LIFE, days after the assassination, she referred to his presidency as “Camelot” – invoking the mythical world of the Arthurian legend.
The myth and continued perception of Kennedy’s “greatness” as a President, despite a rather unimpressive congressional career, the smallest margin of victory in an American presidential election and no substantial legislative gains while in office, are perhaps explained by his image and personal attributes. His youth, the Hollywood looks and style, his humour, his glamorous wife and lifestyle all explain his popularity, but not his posthumous glorification. Kennedy’s assassination elevated him to a permanent place in the American political consciousness. The culture of optimism and hope embodied by Kennedy was shattered by his early death but the promise of his greatness could never be endangered by either his private lapses or his ambiguous views.
It doesn’t matter if we agree on what his survival would have meant, or on what he might have delivered. The hope that Kennedy inspired, the need to get the country moving again, is as relevant today, 50 years on, as it was then. Political apathy, particularly among young people, is on the rise. Disillusionment and disappointment colour our view of modern politics while we sit around too lethargic to act. Kennedy challenged the American people and the wider international community to offer sacrifice and commitment to a better tomorrow, to “ask not what your country can do for you…” Kennedy’s ability to inspire is as strong now as it was then, and perhaps of even more importance today.
Kennedy’s youth, vigour, and glamour had as much to do with his appeal as it did his rhetoric and idealism. His death was made all the more tragic because he was cut down in his prime, beside his beautiful wife, amid all the splendour of his presidency. The images of the assassination are emblazoned in our collective memory, and a vibrant leader is frozen in time whose popularity and style have been much emulated but never fully realised since.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons