Sixty years ago last week, the world underwent a trauma when U.S. president John F. Kennedy (JFK) was assassinated while riding in a Lincoln convertible in downtown Dallas, Texas.
A presidency that had been labelled as “Camelot” after a Broadway musical about the reign of mythical King Arthur’s magical kingdom came to an abrupt end.
What followed was a decade of overwhelming cultural and social change. A seemingly magical world was replaced by a crashing reality. A broadly shared vision of a glowing future by many was reduced to the violent reality of race riots in major U.S. cities, student protests against an unpopular war in Vietnam, and near revolutions in Paris, Mexico City, and other major capitals in 1968.
The passage of time always puts history in perspective, and what was once perceived as Camelot with the Kennedys as royalty has diminished a few notches as the reality of historical analysis has set in.
On the positive side, JFK offered the world a vision of dynamic youth dreaming great dreams communicated superbly by the elegant wordsmithing of Theodore Sorensen and by Kennedy’s own mystique and apparent vitality.
However, JFK suffered from Addison’s disease, a debilitating illness that he camouflaged through sailing, touch football at the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, simple hard work and a punishing travel schedule, and persistent womanizing despite being married to one of the world’s most admired women. In this he was protected by a media – a media that constructed a wall between JFK’s reality and the public’s perceptions.
Another positive perception of the times were JFK’s words in favor of racial and social justice at a time when segregation reigned in the South and severe racial tensions existed in major American cities.
Words to the contrary, Kennedy was initially shy to actually enact enabling legislation to end the racial divide and extreme poverty. He finally sent the Civil Rights Act to Congress that passed it posthumously in January of 1964.
His fateful trip to Dallas was meant to shore up Southern support for his candidacy for the 1964 presidential elections, since a Kennedy victory was not then a sure thing given that he had lost the support of Southern Democrats for his civil rights legislation.
Another positive development was his leadership during the Cuban missile crisis. He stared down Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev for 13 days that shook the world and brought us to the brink of nuclear holocaust.
Indeed, superb leadership.
However, one must keep in mind that his mishandling of the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, when he refused vital air cover for Cuban mercenaries attacking Castro’s Cuba, led the Soviets to believe that he was a weak leader. He had left the mercenaries to lose the battle and helped Castro solidify his hold over the island. This perception of weakness likely led Khrushchev to underestimate the young U.S. president and embark on his nuclear adventure in Cuba in 1962.
I was 11 years old in grade 6 on that fateful Friday in November and could not fathom how so popular a leader could be gunned down in broad daylight.
However, it was only much later that I learned that he had created powerful enemies in the Mafia, the CIA, and some in the military. The Mafia had helped JFK win Illinois and thus the presidency through its control of major unions. Yet as president, JFK unleashed his Attorney General and brother Robert F. Kennedy to prosecute Mafia leaders at every opportunity.
The CIA and some of his senior military officers blamed JFK for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and considered him a communist sympathizer at a time when McCarthyism was still very much on people’s minds.
History teaches that the passage of time changes our perceptions of events, and simplistic conclusions become complex analyses.
JFK’s presidency is no exception.
Today’s social media and aggressive media would have laid bare JFK’s peccadillos and obliterated his appeal. JFK would have been far from the hero he was considered in the sixties. Indeed, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and JFK would likely be considered a mediocre leader by many today.
And yet, JFK’s dream of a shining city on a hill (later adopted by Reagan from a very different ideological perspective) continues to move many of us of the 60’s generation who view this vision as an ideal to be sought in a world fraught with violence and injustice.
Although it ultimately failed and would have failed today, Camelot stood out for the baby boomer generation as a world where idealism was possible despite our many human failings.
JFK was imperfect, but he dared to dream and challenge a generation to share his dreams – from tackling poverty and racial inequality to going to the moon.
And that, dear readers, remains a tremendous legacy.
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