He was killed more than half a century ago, and in the decades since, much of what shaped the hagiography has been stripped away. The images of the young husband and father, radiant wife by his side and adorable children cavorting in the Oval Office, has been overshadowed by reality; he was a reckless philanderer who took the mistress of a mafia chieftain as a lover. The image of a glamorous leader who embodied “vigor” concealed a man wracked by illness. The president who spoke in idealistic terms of public service abused the power of his office, tapping phones and unearthing tax returns to compel steel executives to rescind their price hikes. His administration sought for years to topple Fidel Castro, and looked for ways to kill him. He ran in 1960 as a Cold Warrior, using false statistics about a nonexistent “missile gap,” and sent 16,000 “advisers” to Vietnam, deepening a commitment his successor pursued into the longest, most divisive war in our history.
And yet historians, a recent survey showed, rank John F. Kennedy as our eighth best president, just below Jefferson and just above Reagan, although his tenure was the shortest of all but six chief executives. The public rates him as the best of all the presidents since 1960.
Why? Much of this can be explained by the fact of his murder: as shocking a blow to the body politic as any, followed by days of national mourning that brought the nation to a standstill, and made the possibilities of his truncated life a vessel into which we could pour our desires. Moreover, the dark years that followed, with racial and generational upheaval, and a war gone terribly wrong, gave the Kennedy years a retrospective sheen.
But that is not the whole story. There was, in his last days, a sense that JFK was beginning to confront the hardest issues that were challenging the country, abandoning premises that he had brought to the presidency.
He had entered the White House as a reluctant combatant in the fight for civil rights, accommodating segregationists who held congressional power by appointing racist judges. But when the foot soldiers of the civil rights fight staged sit-ins and demonstrations, he told the nation on June 11, 1963 that “we are confronted … with a moral issue as clear as the American Constitution,” and proposed a sweeping public accommodations bill that made him a pariah in the South and threatened his re-election.
His Cold War rhetoric gave way to a cautious approach to the use of force. At the very beginning of his presidency, he rejected the military’s pressure to put American troops into Laos, refused his generals’ advice to bomb the missile sites in Cuba, and—in another historic speech in June of 1963—called for a “reexamination” of U.S. policies toward Moscow. “We all inhabit this small planet,” he said. “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” And that fall, he signed a nuclear test ban treaty as a first step away from nuclear confrontation.
By then, too, his enthusiasm for an aggressive “counterinsurgency” strategy in places like Vietnam had clearly waned; just before he left for Dallas, he instructed Michael Forrestal, a National Security Council staffer, to conduct a review of his entire Vietnam policy, “including how we could get out.” As historian William Pfaff has written: “The President’s post–Bay of Pigs distrust of ‘expert opinion,’ his privately expressed conviction that guerrilla wars are not won by foreign troops, and his repeated referral of his associates to General Douglas MacArthur’s opinion concerning the folly of sending American troops to fight on the Asian mainland suggest that he had made up his mind before 1963 to continue to refuse to send combat forces to Vietnam, but was treading cautiously because of the domestic political situation, and the Pentagon and congressional pressures being placed upon him.” (In 2005, a conference of historians and policy makers reached the same conclusion. You can find an account of that conference in a documentary, “Virtual JFK.”)
None of this is to say that we know what Kennedy would have done had he lived. He might well have lacked the political clout and Capitol Hill knife-fighting skills to win the civil rights fights that Lyndon Johnson won; indeed, the fact of his assassination gave LBJ a powerful emotional tool in that struggle. And he was fully aware of the pressure not to disengage from Vietnam; he told Senator Mike Mansfield and others that he could do nothing about the war until or unless he was reelected.
Nor do we know that JFK’s private life would have escaped public scrutiny. While it is true that the press was far less eager back then to probe the personal lives of public figures, the fact is that there was an effort by some journalists, including the relentless investigate reporter Clark Molenhoff, to look into Kennedy’s womanizing. Had that behavior been exposed, his political survival would have been in grave jeopardy.
All that is speculation. What is much more clear is what Kennedy’s death did to America’s sense of optimism and self-confidence. While his assassin was a self-taught Marxist with lifelong tendencies to violence, it seemed impossible that the most powerful of men could be brought low by so insignificant a figure. Rather, this murder was blamed on a “climate of hate” that seemed to indict not one man, but something deep within the country. That, in turn, helped feed an endless series of conspiracy theories—popularized in books and in movies like Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” that blamed a powerful, shadowy force deep within the military-industrial complex. (To this day a majority of Americans believe that Kennedy was killed by one version or another of such a conspiracy). To believe that—in spite of the evidence that, for me at least, makes Oswald’s sole guilt highly probable, is to believe something very bleak about our country. Hard as it to believe in today’s political climate, the Kennedy years were characterized by a sense of confidence; there was a sense that public service was a worthy and exciting field. When the Peace Corps recruiters came to the University of Wisconsin in 1962, the line of prospective volunteers stretched for blocks.
Back then, polls showed that three quarters of Americans believed that the government did what was right all or most of the time. Within a decade, after the twin blows of Vietnam and Watergate, barely a third of Americans held that trust.
We have long since learned that “Camelot” was a carefully constructed myth, driven by his widow and his acolytes. We have long since learned that Kennedy was a man with deep character flaws. But he was also a president who, unlike so many who followed, understood the limits of power, who learned from his mistakes, whose public prudence during the most dangerous of times, may have helped avoid a nuclear war.
So if, half a century on, we still wonder at what might have been, it is more than an exercise in mythology. There is a genuine case to be made that in his death, we lost the possibility of a very different world.