Every President wants to be remembered with an amazing record in office. Some work hard at creating their legacy, while others stumble about without a clue. John F. Kennedy’s legacy of course differs from most others and no one thought it would have such a cruel twist of fate, when the 35th President of the United States of America was assassination in 1963. Personally I wasn’t even born yet, but his Presidency and legacy has had a profound effect on my interest in 20th Century history. In short, I can only imagine what it would have been like for Americans to hear the news of his death or those awaking up around the world to be equally traumatised.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a member of one of the most influential, wealthy American families of the last century. He was a young man with a beautiful wife and four children. He was also a World War two veteran who lived in excruciating pain most of his life with a degenerative illness that was hidden from the scrutiny of the public and political office. As a Catholic he had to overcome religious intolerance before he was elected in one of the closest presidential elections of the twentieth century.
Kennedy as the newly elected President in 1961, together with his team brought a new style to public office. They shunned the past and focused on rebuilding the United States into a “superpower” through ingenious innovation and strategic long term planning. He hoped to do this through his great communicative skills. He particularly used the power or use of television to help him “sell” his grand vision.
In a little over a thousand days in office, he set new standards for Americans. His inaugural speech set the wheels in motion of the concept of individual responsibility. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
High on Kennedy’s agenda was restoring national pride, visions of social justice and democratic freedom worldwide. His social programmes included federal aid for education, increases in the minimum wage and social security benefits and medical care for the ageing generation. However, in civil rights, he was initially hesitant and unassertive in pushing for serious change. The activities of the “Freedom Riders”, in particular, was a failure of his presidency. He insisted on a “cooling off period” between civil rights activists and the Southern States. He condemned the Rides as unpatriotic because they were embarrassing to the nation. World outrage of the inaction of the Federal Government and the mass demonstrations led by Martin Luther King eventually forced Kennedy to act.
He had also many other failures, many of them personal faults, which included his infidelity and appetite for female “conquest”. Though, his most public failure was the Cuban invasion, the Bay of Pigs, which forever stained his presidency.
Putting aside many of these shortcomings, he was otherwise strong and attentive when it came to greater matters of diplomacy and defence. It is in his decision to staring down Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis that elevated him to greatness. The world has Kennedy to thank for possibly averting global nuclear destruction ?
With notions of Camelot and grandeur suurounding Kennedy (more so after his death), no one can look past the fact that the boldest promise or prediction he ever made came true. In May 1961, Kennedy declared that “this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon”. Sure enough, this was achieved in 1969, six years after his death.
His assassination on November 22nd 1963, will forever be remembered. As stated earlier, it not only shook America but the entire world. However, one might wonder, if he had lived, would his reputation as a statesman further flourished or might it have diminished with time? A lot of his critics unfortunately often subscribe to the latter. But it’s not far fetched to seriously consider him as one of the greatest presidents in US history to ever come to office. This of course is for others to judge and we still might be debating this even in another fifty years from now. Though what we can say about him is that no one can ever doubt his rhetoric, his confidence or his abilities in lifting his countries hopes and dreams. Moreover to reassure a nation that a President can lead not only in times of prosperity but crisis as well. This is a lesson I guess every President since Kennedy has had to struggle with or work hard to deal with.
Photo credit: Aaron Shikler’s official portrait of John F. Kennedy, which was unveiled in 1971 and hangs in the White House, shows the President in deep thought.
This article was originally published on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death in 2013.