JFK — 47 years later, the initials still have the power to evoke memories and mythologies. The memories of that terrible day in Dallas — November 22, 1963 — remain fresh. This iconic date haunts the calendar much like December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination remains a devastating chalkstripe across history: the time before with so much possibility, the time after with so much chaos and violence.
The memories mask the mythologies. At the time of his death at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy was coming to the end of his second full year as president, and the results were decidedly mixed. Kennedy won the presidency on the slimmest of margins over Richard Nixon, but that fact quickly faded in the national excitement over this glamorous and youthful leader whose style presaged a new American era. “Camelot” was all the rage on Broadway then, and comparisons between the young president and young mythical King Arthur were inescapable.
Kennedy’s first two years certainly included landmark legislation and events: establishment of the Peace Corps, launching the space program, laying the foundation for the Civil Rights Act, War on Poverty, Welfare Reform, Fair Housing and, most importantly, the full integration of universities.
But Kennedy’s brief presidency was also entwined with the increasingly treacherous Cold War. The Bay of Pigs invasion — an effort to support the overthrow of Castro in Cuba — was a disaster. The Cuban missile crisis barely averted nuclear catastrophe. The arms race was accelerating. And in a small nation halfway around the world, the American presence was growing in a place called Vietnam.
Had he lived, Kennedy may well have suffered the political fate of his successor Lyndon Johnson: bogged down in Vietnam, plagued by protests and riots at home, Johnson refused to run for a second term in 1968. On the other hand, some theorists maintain that the Kennedy assassination in 1963 was a cultural shock that triggered a new age of uncertainty, domestic violence and civil unrest.
Speculation, of course, is just that. If there is anything to learn from Kennedy’s presidency, it is that even a smart, young, dynamic leader, earnestly trying to pull the nation into a new age, can have remarkable triumphs and spectacular failures. That’s all part of political life. We need leaders who have the courage to try to do the boldest things possible. They risk everything in the attempt — their reputations, their hold on elected office, even their lives. Rather than spending so much time bashing the leader, as is the current fashion, we should be grateful that we have among us a few bold women and men who are unafraid, creative and persistent in their belief that there really is a better future for our society.
“Ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” (President John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address)
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