As we take a moment today to observe the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and, more importantly, his legacy, it is worth noting that Kennedy viewed life as an ironist and a fatalist. At a news conference, Kennedy once observed that life is unfair, and, on Nov. 22, 1963, the supreme unfairness of life was demonstrated to every single human being in the world.
It is useful, of course, to see Kennedy as a real person and not some stained-glass piece of political iconography. Kennedy doubtless would have made light of that. Someone once asked him how he became a war hero. “It was easy,” he said. “They sank my boat.”
To see him now as a plastic liberal action figure is too facile, too cheap. He was an unlikely progressive icon then – he came late to the struggle for civil rights, mostly because he was blocked in Congress. When he finally weighed in after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in June 1963, he did so resoundingly. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, saw to the final enactment of Kennedy’s promise, and more.
There is no doubt, however, that Kennedy’s most profound legacy was his ability to inspire, and his death had a exponential multiplier effect.
Kennedy was a Cold Warrior and a peacemaker at once, with a twist: It took a former Navy lieutenant, j.g., to solve the Cuban missile crisis. He was able to do that only because he had failed spectacularly 18 months earlier at the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba. He distrusted the Joint Chiefs of Staff after their catastrophic advice, and he managed to fend them off again in October 1962 during the missile crisis. His judgment, along with behind-the-scenes horse-trading, likely saved the world from a nuclear conflagration. He forcefully advocated for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and, after the missile crisis, got a hotline installed between Russia and the United States, just in case.
We remember Kennedy now because he was the first modernist in a classic world; he and his young family were photogenic and fresh. Kennedy was the impresario and lead actor in an electronic movie-star presidency, starring the charming Jack Kennedy in often-amusing news conferences. He was a master rhetorician and quotable humorist. Kennedy struggled privately as humans do; his judgment with women was poor, and his physical pain was numbed by a quack doctor, injecting him with amphetamines.
We remember Kennedy today not because he was the greatest president; he wasn’t. We remember him because he was a young and vivid 46 years old, and the manner of his death, replayed a thousand times this week, is still Shakespearean and repulsive. We remember him because he set the stage for both the zenith and nadir of the 1960s: the moon landing and Vietnam. We remember him because he asked Americans to look beyond themselves, and they did through the Peace Corps, which, to date, has had 210,000 volunteers. We remember him because he called upon the world to make freedom its ultimate goal.
“What might have been” is an existential dice game. Had he lived, other dreadful moments in his life might well have marred his legacy. But in death, Kennedy truly inspired many people in the United States and around the world to excel not just in politics, but in their own lives, great and small.
It’s a good enough reason to take a moment today to remember Jack Kennedy, a man who died too young and too shockingly.