Fifty years after the fact, many of the readers of this blog will probably acknowledge that they did not exist when the last presidential assassination occurred. But the details of the event are almost universally known among Americans. Who hasn’t heard of the grassy knoll, Lee Harvey Oswald, or Jack Ruby? The conspiracy theories abound, giving fodder to minds searching for even more political intrigue during the Cold War. In light of all of the talk surrounding the circumstances of his death, losing sight of the actual significance of JFK’s life is all too easy.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy came from a family of equal national consciousness as himself. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was a national figure in his own right, in addition to being descended from a politician Patrick Kennedy. Joseph Kennedy was the American ambassador to England and the first chairman of the SEC. He had four sons: Joseph, jr., John, Robert, and Edward. With the exception of Joseph, jr. (who died in World War II), all of them became United States senators. Ted Kennedy, the only one to survive the 60’s, stayed in office until relatively recently.
Jack Kennedy himself was a monolithic figure, to say the least. His senior thesis for his international affairs degree from Harvard became a bestseller. After graduating college, he became a war hero by earning the Purple Heart in the Pacific theater. He had a brief postwar journalism career that involved covering the Potsdam Conference. And all this before reaching thirty. In a way, he exemplified what the child of a self-made immigrant family would look like. He was the ideal capstone of an all-American story.
His rather short presidency, from a political perspective, was muddled with euphoric highs supplemented with the kind of legendary, awe-inspiring, exceedingly rare rhetoric that few have been able to match and frightful lows that bring into serious doubt his leadership capability along with moments of sheer nuclear crisis-induced terror that were handled with varying degrees of competency. His youthful passion was perhaps the most important trait of his administration, bringing with it all the altruism and brashness that were expected.
The Kennedy era of foreign policy was obviously dominated by the Cold War, with emphasis on war. Beginning with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, there was an unmistakable confrontational tone in the administration’s dealings with communism that the feckless Democrats of today would do well to remember, particularly in light of the recent trouble with rogue states like Iran. Kennedy was unprepared for the successful launch of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which is demonstrable of bad leadership. However, he did take responsibility for his failure, which is also a trait that modern Democrats should take to heart.
Of course, the most famous foreign policy crisis of the Cold War occurred under his watch. Somewhat stemming from the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has come to nuclear war. The fact that you can read this is due to wise decisions that were made during that time. The world stood still as the leaders of the two most powerful countries tip-toed around either losing significant face or total destruction. Thankfully, an equitable solution was reached. As the President had said during his inauguration: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
A more well-planned response to an international issue was seen in his West Berlin speech in 1963. He demonstrated his command of the free world in a masterpiece of speech writing unparalleled until Ronald Reagan spoke there. The speech confronted the moral problems of communism and ably showed the differences between the West and the East: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” I wonder if the rah-rah America Republicans bent on a wall between the United States and Mexico have ever heard of the Berlin Wall.
In addition to his speech in Germany, another part of his presidency bears some comparison to Reagan. As far as taxes went, he was downright conservative. When attempting to solve government revenue problems, his answer was not the typical democratic response of simply raising taxes. He understood that overall revenues would be higher if tax rates were reduced. Very few, if any, modern politicians truly understand this idea. It is indeed an odd situation when one of the banner policies of a Republican president is simply a more well-developed application of a previous Democrat.
What is odder still is the way his tax policy fit in with the rest of his domestic policy. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” was a precursor to the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. He, with great success, passed massive new government spending measures that did much to increase federal involvement in housing, agriculture, and unemployment. Franklin Roosevelt would have been proud. As far as progressives go, he wasn’t exactly a major visionary but he was good at what he did. He did not set precedent, but he did not go against it either. This, perhaps, is is greatest failure. A man with the persuasive capabilities of JFK could have done much to undo what had already been done, but he chose not to.
No discussion of Kennedy is complete without a reference to the launch of NASA. The President set a goal that was out of reach, trusting that the country could do it, and was posthumously successful. Was it incredibly expensive? Yes. Did it provide common ground for Americans and force the Soviets to spend precious resources on a side-objective? Yes. This move took a short-term Soviet victory and turned into one of the most inspiring examples of executive leadership in the history of America. No president before or after has been able to chalk up something as uniquely important as the Space Race to his name.
Fifty years ago today, Lee Harvey Oswald shot this man in Dallas. JFK’s assassination wasn’t simply the killing of a president, it was the ending of one of the most explosive lives in national history. In the midst of all of the talk of Camelot, various episodes of pathological philandering, and a return of high-culture to the White House, Kennedy’s life stood above it all. Whatever may be said of his personal actions, or the effectiveness of his policies at accomplishing the goals he set forth, the man brought America together in a way that is desperately needed today.