WASHINGTON – John F. Kennedy remains a martyred symbol of poetic political possibility 50 years after his assassination, but history may ultimately deliver an unsparing verdict on his unfulfilled White House legacy.
So shocking was the daylight murder of the charismatic 35th U.S. president that people the world over remember where they were when they learned he had been shot on Nov. 22, 1963.
Events marking the half-century anniversary of his death are throwing fresh scrutiny on Kennedy’s lasting impact, as a leader and as a political icon whose star burned bright as the 1960s swept away a gray postwar world.
Kennedy emerged as a torchbearer of change with his election in 1960. For the baby-boom generation, his presidency is remembered wistfully as a time of hope, suddenly extinguished.
Unlike those whom he enlisted in a cause to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country, Kennedy did not grow old, and so lives on in the mind, suspended in perpetual youth.
For many, he remains the dashing World War II hero, the campaigner with a toothy grin, the doting father with an impossibly glamorous wife, or the statesman who shepherded the world back from the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nearly two decades of failed or scandal-tainted presidencies after his death helped enshrine JFK as a symbol of the lost nobility of a politics that aimed at lofty goals — like putting a man on the moon — “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Subsequent American generations came to know Kennedy through carefully crafted images and sympathetic histories written by the courtiers of Camelot.
But his legend has also been embroidered by revelations of womanizing, exposes on the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and disclosures about the fragile health of a man presented as the epitome of youth.
Rampant conspiracy theories over whether assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone meanwhile leave a suspicion that Kennedy is remembered as much for the horrific manner of his death and subsequent public trauma as for what he did while alive.
Historian Leonard Steinhorn, who teaches courses on Kennedy’s legacy at American University, said JFK will be remembered for first recognizing, then mastering, the power of television.
“Since we have not yet graduated from that age, he still serves as the model for a degree of charisma, presence and leadership that we expect from our presidents these days,” Steinhorn said.
But as Kennedy’s contemporaries pass away, future historians may view his presidency through a more critical lens.
“I am of the opinion that John Kennedy, this week . . . notwithstanding, is really quite minimal in importance to the current generation,” said professor Jeffrey Engel, who lectures on Kennedy’s legacy at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
“It is a tragic reason — but his legacy is that of a president unfulfilled.”
While Kennedy set the political tone for key issues of the 1960s, such as the Great Society social reforms and civil rights — it was left to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to enact groundbreaking legislation.
Historians now debate whether JFK would have matched the political dexterity of master legislator Johnson, and many believe he would not have gone as far on civil rights and other social issues.
Equally, no one can know for certain whether Kennedy, a noted Cold Warrior, would have gotten sucked as deep as Johnson in the carnage of the war against communism in Vietnam.
“Those who study the presidency look at him and say, yes, he had tremendous talent and offered tremendous hope to the American people, but the actual legislative and diplomatic series of accomplishments is actually remarkably thin,” said Engel.
There is some irony that it has fallen to another Democratic president who built his own brand of inspirational politics to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.
President Barack Obama laid claim to Kennedy’s torch of idealism at an evocative event at American University in Washington during the 2008 campaign with Kennedy’s late brother Sen. Ted Kennedy.
“There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a New Frontier,” Kennedy said at the time.
“So it is with Barack Obama. He has lit a spark of hope amid the fierce urgency of now.”
But the power of Obama’s inspiration crashed into reality. Entrenched partisan divides, the messy choices of power and his own political deficiencies tempered the tide of change.
Kennedy, by contrast, did not live to see disappointment cloud his idealism, and so lives on in history, as a symbol of possibility, extinguished.