It was especially poignant to see Caroline Kennedy, America’s new ambassador to Japan, present her credentials to Emperor Akihito this week. Coming just three days before the 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination in Dallas, it was a vivid demonstration that the impact of John F. Kennedy’s presidency is still very much alive.
As much as we admire Kennedy, many of us of a certain age have dreaded the approach of this anniversary, both for the painful memories it brings back and the inevitable flood of treacly media coverage it’s already engendered. Every network scheduled its own “exclusive” assassination special. Grassy knoll conspiracy theories crawled out of the woodwork. On top of 40,000 books already published about JFK, Nov. 22 prompted at least a dozen new ones, including “If Kennedy Lived” – Jeff Greenfield’s fanciful, but meaningless, drivel about what Kennedy’s first and second terms would have looked like if only he’d not been killed. Oh, but he was.
Still, the media overdose says something very powerful. It says that even though he served in office less than three years, even though his legislative accomplishments were slim to nonexistent and even though he set the direction in Vietnam that LBJ would follow, John F. Kennedy had a more lasting impact on the American people than any other president in our lifetime has had. On this anniversary, it’s important to stop and ask ourselves why.
Of course, it’s partly because he was so young and handsome, and had such a beautiful wife and family. And, let’s be honest, like President Lincoln, the fact that President Kennedy was assassinated has earned him a certain amount of respect, affection and looking-the-other-way most presidents don’t benefit from, nor would want to. But the Kennedy legacy is no less real and lasting.
For one thing, Kennedy exuded self-confidence. Even though he’d suffered serious illness and was on heavy medication, he appeared to be the picture of health. He played golf. He went sailing. He played touch football. He obviously loved life, and he made Americans feel good about themselves again. With him in the Oval Office, there was nothing we could not accomplish. If he said we’d put a man on the moon, by golly, we would. And we did.
Kennedy was also smart as a whip and surrounded himself with smart people, the “best and the brightest.” People like Ted Sorensen, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk and Bobby Kennedy. Yes, they made mistakes in Vietnam and at the Bay of Pigs, but, unlike the ’50s when intellectuals were derided as “eggheads,” Americans felt good that there was so much brainpower in the White House.
And, as he demonstrated during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was tough. It was a scary time, especially for Americans on the East Coast, where big cities, refineries and power plants were considered targets where nuclear missiles might strike – anytime. But Americans also knew they could count on the hero of PT 109 never to cave in to the enemy. As close as we’ve ever come to the brink, he stood up to the Soviets, and they blinked.
Kennedy was not universally loved. He almost lost to Nixon. But his charm, his wit, his eloquence and self-assured ease with the media soon won him the respect, if not the affection, of an entire nation. Would it work today? Probably not. Times are different. Politics and the media are much less forgiving. But the Kennedy magic worked then, and still does.
On a personal note, John F. Kennedy had a profound impact on my own career. I was a senior in high school when the young senator from Massachusetts came to Wilmington, Del., the year after he electrified the nation with his gracious speech to the 1956 Democratic National Convention, withdrawing his name from consideration as vice president. Classmate Pete Feeney and I met him at the train station and interviewed him for our high-school newspaper. He talked about writing “Profiles in Courage” while recovering from back surgery and encouraged us to get involved in politics by volunteering in local campaigns.
It was no “Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden” moment, but my encounter with Kennedy left its mark, instilling in me a belief in public service and a faith in the political process that remains to this day. And I’m only one of millions worldwide whom JFK inspired, and continues to inspire.