Next month marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s murder in Dallas — an event that shaped the decades that followed and deeply affected the generation of Americans who came of age in the wake of the crime. Today, questions linger about the impact, or not, of Kennedy’s brief presidency. We assembled a roundtable group of local academics and politicians to talk about his legacy and reflect on their memories of JFK and his aftermath. These are the highlights of their discussion.
Moderator: Looking at the assassination 50 years later, are there repercussions from it that are still felt today? And did it change us?
Caryn Neumann: Of course there are ramifications. We wouldn’t have gotten stuck in Vietnam, for one thing. Kennedy was talking about getting out after 1964, and he had previously resisted generals in his circle of advisers who had been more belligerent than he was — on Cuba, on the Berlin Wall. He would certainly have pulled us out, and that would have affected so many things.
Michael Carter: The assassination changed the whole way we do presidential security and created today’s very limited access to the person of the president — which changed the access the president has to regular citizens, and necessarily affects the way he relates to the public.
Anita Scott Jones: Nobody knows what he would’ve done if he’d remained alive, but it was definite game-changer, historically.
Charles Curran: I’d say his untimely death brought a real sense of urgency to a lot of the legislation on civil rights, poverty and other important areas that came about under LBJ and the Great Society — changes that might not otherwise have gone through. The southern Democrats in Congress who resisted those things weren’t likely to have changed — and that resistance Kennedy was facing from his own party members may be what kept him from moving into those areas as rapidly as he might have wanted to.
Jones: I agree. I’m from Montgomery, Ala., and African-Americans were very aware of how he really felt about civil rights issues, even if he tried not to make it known at the time. He called Coretta Scott King while Dr. King was in jail in Atlanta, for instance — and that wasn’t widely known, but we all knew it and appreciated it.
Neumann: I’m not sure civil rights would have progressed as quickly under Kennedy if he hadn’t died, as it did under Johnson. LBJ had the touch.
Jones: But the seeds were planted. He died in late 1963 and you’ve got the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act coming in ’65 — so something had to have happened during Kennedy’s administration for all that to have happened so soon.
Carter: Well, Johnson was very skilled at manipulating Kennedy’s memory for the purposes of his own agenda.
Tom Taylor: Actually, the whole story changes because he dies. Johnson uses the martyrdom to good effect, but I agree with Anita that forces for change were there already. Plus, Kennedy was changing — he grew in his thinking on these issues. He certainly wasn’t an advocate of civil rights in the ’50s, but gosh, he was still a young man. Who knows how he would have evolved by 1964 or ’65, especially with all the pressure he would’ve gotten from Bobby.
Carter: The assassination provided an opportunity for people to graft their own hopes and aspirations onto Kennedy’s memory. It’s often difficult now to separate what really happened during his presidency from what people feel it evoked for them.
Neumann: Well, he embodied hope, youth and the future for so many people — such a different country than we have today. That all got shattered.
Moderator: How long did it take for Johnson to use up that good will after the assassination?
Curran: It was the Vietnam War that did it. He became too closely associated with the buildup and when he sent in half a million troops.
Taylor: I think the polls turned negative on him when the Tet Offensive hit in 1968. He announced he wouldn’t run again shortly after that.
Moderator: Did all this affect people’s faith in government?
Neumann: Yes, but in combination with King’s and Bobby’s assassinations, Vietnam and everything else that came in the ’60s. Until Vietnam, people used to trust in politics and politicians.
Carter: It’s also interesting how the assassination has been invoked in popular culture — like an index on how much respect the public has for the presidency in general. When Kennedy died, it horrified people, but when Reagan was shot in 1981, there was laughter and joking about it before it was even known if he’d survive.
Neumann: There was some joking about Kennedy in the South, too.
Jones: Well, look at Lincoln. No matter how popular you are with some people, there are always people who won’t show respect.
Neumann: One thing different with Kennedy’s assassination was that before, nobody talked about conspiracies with previous presidential assassinations or attempts — FDR, McKinley, Garfield. That was certainly new.
Jones: I think it’s because of how the Kennedys were portrayed in the media, and how we think of Camelot and how they were the aristocrats of America.
Taylor: Really, different subcultures will view these things differently. For young baby boomers, this was the defining thing you can’t ever get out of your head. It’s a cliche, but it was the loss-of-innocence moment for that generation, and the cynicism just built through the decade. But for African-Americans living in the South in 1963, that cynicism wasn’t there — they already had good reason to think this wasn’t the nation they wanted.
Curran: I recall when I was campaigning and would visit African-American churches, how many would have big photos of Kennedy on the walls. I was always amazed by the role he was always perceived to have played in alleviating that community’s suffering.
Thomas Mach: Kennedy redefined the presidential campaign, and how we view presidents. What he was able to accomplish and what people said about him afterward are two different things. He’s important in so many reform movements that happened after he died, and Johnson could muscle things through after he died. The image of JFK was largely created by Jackie — Camelot first, and she was the key to making his funeral procession feel like Lincoln’s, which was also critical to creating that image.
Jones: The key word you used is image. They were quite the idyllic-seeming couple, the perfect family, and look at Kennedy’s father— when his oldest son died, he locked in on making sure Jack was elected president. Image was always there. People always talk about that negatively after you’re gone, but we put leaders up on that unattainable level when they’re here.
Moderator: So has he been overrated in his performance? What accounts for the continued fascination with him?
Curran: Well, his legislative content is pretty empty. I think his success is mostly the charisma, which the press got caught up in.
Carter: The presidency is highly attuned to image and managing perceptions, and Kennedy was obsessive about every detail his administration presented. He even passed judgment on the colors Jackie used to paint rooms in the White House.
Neumann: I think he was really good with foreign policy. The Bay of Pigs was obviously an early disaster, but he learned from it. He kept us out of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he avoided a shooting war in the Berlin crisis, and I think in Vietnam he went slowly and would have gotten out. But he only got 1,000 days — what can you really do in that time?
Moderator: If he had two full terms, would he be as popular today?
Mach: Well, he was particularly adept at presenting himself well. And how he presented himself was how the world perceived America at the time. That comes through in his focus, and that foreign policy was the pre-eminent feature of his administration.
Carter: I’m reminded of what Harry S. Truman said about Kennedy — that he didn’t want to use power, he just wanted to have power.
Taylor: He wasn’t noted as a strong legislative-agenda politician. Ted Kennedy, of course, was very significant legislatively. But I think JFK was interrupted too soon. We just don’t know what he would have done. That’s part of the mystique, right? That he was cut off so soon.
Moderator: Talk about how he shaped the baby boom generation and the rest of the 1960s.
Taylor: Well, it’s interesting to think back to how the assassination and the follow-up, including Oswald’s killing live on TV, dominated everyone’s life for days — the entire weekend was saturated with TV news. In many ways, the event was a watershed for TV news and how important it would become. And those images weren’t something you could shake. I think that affected the whole generation.
Curran: It’s pretty clear his style, his dress, his attitude were an inspiration for a whole generation — just look at the Peace Corps. So many of my classmates couldn’t wait to go overseas and do that work. One of the greatest things Kennedy did was to inspire young people to be involved in their government and their country.
Mach: His death also changed liberalism in America. In some ways you wouldn’t call him a liberal now — he was very conservative fiscally, and in his foreign policy. But when you combine his death with King’s and Bobby’s, you see the radicalization of liberalism — a generation that came out of college in the 1960s that was, say, less harsh on communism, and more dedicated to action — including violent action, which you saw in a lot of the protests.
Neumann: It’s worth mentioning that Jackie said Jack hated the word liberal. He thought it sounded pretentious and self-righteous. He preferred “progressive.”
Moderator: What do you think young people today make of all this?
Carter: They know fairly little about Kennedy at all. His memory and image are so malleable that they may know the image that was constructed about him by Johnson and others later, but not much of the man.
Mach: I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and for students today Vietnam is as far away as World War II — so Kennedy has moved into the same realm as the Lincoln assassination. The conspiracy is still interesting because Americans like conspiracy, but otherwise, not so much.
Neumann: It’s really baby boomers who are keeping his memory alive.
Mach: But polls of the public still place him in the top tier of presidents. I think historians should be more discerning, though.
Taylor: His star has actually risen among historians. He’s had good luck in that regard. And really, how far do you have to go after him to match him for intelligence, dash, charm? Reagan?
Jones: I wonder when interest in him will wane? Will there be huge interest in him for the 75th anniversary of the assassination? That’s hard to imagine.
Taylor: Probably not, but that’s the natural way of things, the further you get from the event.
Jones: Some other tragedy comes along.
Curran: Well, I think as long as you keep having Kennedys involved in public office, which you still have, you’ll have continued interest in the family.
Carter: I wonder today how the sex scandals around him would affect his image?
Neumann: Among women, quite a lot.
Taylor: It’s worth pointing out that with conservatives, Kennedy is not at all well thought of. He’s used to show how liberalism goes bad.
Mach: Well, Clinton’s case shows that it’s hard to say how much of an issue sex is for Americans with politicians now. But if you believe that faith and morality have an impact on your political thinking, that personal values impact your actions, then these things still matter.
Moderator: Do you think Kennedy would have made it today, given what we know of his personal life?
Neumann: No. I think he would have blown up the way Gary Hart did. He didn’t have much self-restraint personally, from what I’ve read, and candidates today are much more heavily scrutinized than they were then.
Carter: Was the media partnering with Kennedy?
Moderator: He knew how to woo them.
Mach: They didn’t want to report on those things. His ability to present himself as well as he did would make him a desirable candidate — even today. People today don’t want to listen to lengthy debates or study deep policy; they want sound bites and they look at image, mostly. Kennedy certainly understood that very well.
Taylor: He would have to have been raised quite differently, though.
Neumann: He had myriad issues with women that would be a problem today.
Taylor: If he’d been raised in a different generation, that might have been different. He was awfully savvy, a smart guy who made the transition in his day to be a TV candidate a lot faster than most other politicians. He surrounded himself with good people. And if you read his speeches, he was a quick wit, a very funny guy.
Moderator: Do you think this generation will see President Obama as their Kennedy?
Neumann: Not with all the polarization. Politics has changed too dramatically.
Jones: Obama will be heroic to some people, as the first African-American president.
Neumann: He doesn’t use his family the way Kennedy did, and he doesn’t have the same charisma. He’s had some very good speeches, but nothing really striking.
Mach: Well, Kennedy was also very polarizing. He had trouble getting legislation through Congress. Republicans disliked him. Would we think differently about him if he hadn’t been assassinated? Camelot looks different in that light.
Carter: He would have had a very long post-presidency. Look at what Carter, Nixon and Clinton did with theirs.
Taylor: Charisma fades. Since he died young, his image is frozen in that charismatic phase. We didn’t have to watch him struggle with Congress through a second term. There are certain similarities between Kennedy and Obama in urbanity, sophistication and a talent for giving good speeches. One difference is that Obama wasn’t raised in a household that was preparing him to become president. Kennedy was raised in a way that shaped him for national service.
Moderator: Last question: Lone gunman or conspiracy?
Curran: Lone gunman.
Mach: I think it’s interesting that there was not a lot of immediate conversation about Oswald being an avowed Communist. But I think lone gunman; the Warren Commission mostly got it right.
Carter: This postmodern phenomenon of closed-circle conspiracy theories is pretty interesting. I have no reason to doubt the Warren Commission.
Neumann: I agree that conspiracy theories are a waste of time.
Jones: All we can do is surmise. We’ll never know. Does it matter?
Taylor: For the historian, it always matters.
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