JFK, a retrospective

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

For those of us who remember that damnable day in Dallas, the hurt and loss remain new and hot to the touch to this day.

We still can sniff the aroma of charred dreams mixing with the wafting scent of flickering hope on the flower.

To label this tragedy a seminal event in American history is beyond reasonable debate.

The assassination of JFK lit the fuse on a powder key of an era that shredded some of America’s fabric.

The killing of Kennedy triggered a turbulent decade of protests and worse, more assassinations — Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy the most notable — and the expansion of what would then be America’s longest war, and its most divisive in a hundred years.

Vietnam scarred the face and soul of America, and changed our society — mostly for the worse.

But was Kennedy a great president, or simply King of Camelot whose short tenure essentially was as airy as a soufflé?

Somewhere in between.

Yep, Kennedy as president could be labeled somewhere between middling and mediocre.

Kennedy was an important president because he was a transformative figure in American history, despite serving such a short term and the fact that landmark civil rights legislation wasn’t actually passed while he was in office.

Style such as his can indeed have substance. Style and substance can ride in tandem.

True, much of the adulation for Kennedy during his life and since originated in arguably superficial attributes: his youth, personal attractiveness, sophistication and his eloquently beautiful wife (who he serially cheated on).

His election at age 43 to succeed the 70-year-old Dwight Eisenhower, who was about as sexy as a Rotary Club poker night, represented a generational shift in American leadership that was as much a source of popular excitement as Kennedy’s individual qualities.

Despite political and personal weaknesses that were widely acknowledged within a few years of his death, Kennedy was not just a charismatic celebrity. And his violent, sudden death rightly is remembered as a rupture in what had seemed an age of optimism and inexorable progress.

At his death, he had no major legislative accomplishments. His two major proposals — a tax cut to spur the economy and civil rights legislation — languished in Congress.

He expanded the Vietnam War, and though some supporters argue he would have reversed that in a second term, presidents are judged on what they did, not what they might have done.

His economic policies, symbolized by the proposed tax cut and called the new economics (an American Keynesianism), had damaging long-term consequences. They unleashed inflation in the late 1960s and 1970s; and they effectively abolished the commitment to balanced budgets — a loss that remains an anvil around our neck.

He also botched the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba but did have the major stones to face down Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis when nuclear war was imminent enough to taste.

Perhaps the public’s utter fascination with Kennedy is inherently baseless.

But the man had a regal presence that, in comparison, made Prince Charming seem as bland as Prince Charles.

An eternal perception that blazes incandescently.

After all, JFK remains the iconic symbol of the New Frontier.


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