Fifty years ago – prior to Vietnam – Americans had a respect for the presidency that is hard to imagine today.
Plenty of people didn’t like John F. Kennedy’s politics or religion, but the majority tended to regard him – like prior presidents – as a sort of father figure, protector and guarantor of national stability. That was especially true of younger Americans attracted to Kennedy’s eloquence, energy and youth, a striking contrast to the bald, cautious and seemingly tongue-tied Dwight Eisenhower.
Baby boomers were shocked by his unthinkable murder, the only presidential assassination since their great-grandparents’ day.
Most people born after about 1958 are probably mystified by the intensity of boomers’ fascination with the wrenching event. The bizarrely disproportionate destruction of a presidency by a pathetic loser has given rise to an unending stream of florid, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
Slain leaders tend to be idealized. Lincoln’s assassination gave a great president a mythic stature. Kennedy accomplished much less by comparison, so we’ve tended to idealize what he would have accomplished had he not been killed less than three years into his first term.
Democrats have tended to remake John Kennedy in the image of the later liberalism of his younger brothers, Sens. Robert and Ted Kennedy.
He paralleled their commitment to civil rights, but was less interested in expanding the reach of government and much more hawkish on foreign policy.
Many have speculated that Kennedy would have ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam after his re-election. Maybe. But it’s a matter of record that he began the intervention.
A ferocious anti-communist, he vowed that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” In hindsight, that comes across as a sweeping rationale for Vietnam and other proxy wars against the Soviet Union and China.
Still, Kennedy adroitly negotiated with Nikita Khrushchev to extricate U.S. and Soviet forces from the nuclear confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis. His handling of that near-holocaust points to a forceful-yet-shrewd presidency that was never realized.
Kennedy’s most compelling appeal was not ideological; it lay in his nonpartisan call to public service, memorably summarized in 17 words: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Had more Americans taken that credo to heart, this would be a very different and better nation.