JFK's Legacy After the 'Kennedy Half Century'

Fifty years after Dallas, we are still trying to come to grips with the presidency and legacy of John F. Kennedy. Although his presidency was the seventh shortest in our history, public opinion polls during the last decade or so have consistently ranked him among our very best presidents. One recent poll found that he ranked highest among the ten men who served in that office between 1950 and 2000.

In a very real sense, the fifty years since Dallas have been, as my friend Larry Sabato termed them in his compelling new book by that name, The Kennedy Half Century. Our memories of JFK were fixed by that awful moment in Dallas and Kennedy has ever since cast a large shadow not only over his successors but over our politics more generally. Most of Kennedy's successors left office following electoral defeat (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush), as the architects of military misadventures (Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush) or in historic disgrace (Richard Nixon). Even the two who completed two terms with their popularity intact, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, had to overcome the disasters of Iran-Contra and impeachment respectively.

Dallas left Kennedy a martyr, an iconic figure with unfulfilled promise. His successors have had to deal, in one way or another, Sabato points out, with Kennedy's legacy. Kennedy is relatively unique in the extent to which memories of him have continued to influence our politics. Every so often a president or historian rediscovers Grover Cleveland or Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson or Calvin Coolidge or various other presidents. Their returns to visibility are fleeting. Yet Kennedy has been a fixture. Bill Clinton capitalized on his film-preserved handshake with JFK and visited his grave with Kennedy family members the day before his first inauguration, Sabato points out. Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination received a big early boost when Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy endorsed him.

Yet, as Sabato recalls, Kennedy's presidency had its troubled and troubling aspects. He bungled the Bay of Pigs by failing to ask the right questions, by deferring unduly to so-called experts and by acting like the inexperienced president he was. He was bullied by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and Kennedy's poor performance emboldened the Soviet leader. He was an ineffective legislator and timid regarding civil rights for most of his presidency. He escalated America's involvement in Vietnam although it seems unlikely that he would have pursued the disastrous policies of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Even putting aside moral judgments, his reckless personal behavior, including his womanizing and drug abuse, subjected his presidency and the country to unacceptable risks and made him vulnerable to the likes of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Yet Kennedy's presidency had aspects which deserve continued celebration. In this age in which good fortune often produces feelings of entitlement, Kennedy's challenge to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" serves as a welcome reminder of collective obligations. Kennedy was not suggesting that government should be indifferent to the poor. On the contrary, the same speech recognized that "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." Rather, Kennedy sought to invoke a commitment to civic responsibility in which citizens thought of giving not simply getting. The Peace Corps reflected that sentiment.

Kennedy's challenge to explore space and his commitment to the arts and humanities reflected his recognition that knowledge and exploration were crucial to understanding the world in which we live and in creating opportunities for individual and communal advance.

Some 18 months after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was the hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis, resisting the entreaties of General Curtis Lemay and other advisers to attack Cuba, action which would have risked nuclear war. Under extraordinary pressure, Kennedy remained cool and intent on resolving, rather than escalating, the crisis.

It took him a while to become passionate about civil rights but when he did on June 11, 1963, he lifted the issue to a moral plane. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution," he said in a nationwide address. "The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated." It was unacceptable for an African-American baby to be born into a nation in which his or her chances of becoming educated, earning a decent living, and living a long and healthy life were much worse than would be the case if they were white. These sentiments cost Kennedy popularity, especially in the South, but five months before he died he was committed.

The day before, at American University, he spoke of "the most important topic on earth: world peace... the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women -- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time." Kennedy challenged Americans to recognize the humanity in the people of our nation's enemies. For "our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal." A few weeks later, the United States and USSR signed a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

These and other moments revealed Kennedy at his best, in understanding and expressing noble ideals of our heritage. We'll never know how Kennedy's presidency would have progressed had the events in Dallas not denied him further opportunity to deliver on his promise. His personal mistakes might have squandered his opportunity. Yet after the Kennedy half century, those lofty ideals remain the best part of his legacy and the part worth pursuing in the next half century.