Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Apotheosis of John F. Kennedy

It was an odd confluence of events yesterday.  While CNN was having a prelude to the memorial of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, BBC was highlighting the birth of the long-running British elevision series Dr. Who, which began on the same day.  In time, both networks were covering the memorial services in full, apparently the first for JFK in Dallas since his assassination.  It seems that not only Dallas but Americans as a whole have come to terms with Kennedy, who tops the list of most popular past presidents at 90%.

Dr. Who would probably be the best person to explore the events surrounding JFK's death with his famous time travel machine machine, Tardis.

Kennedy's approval rating in November 1963 stood at a respectful 58%, but was down 22 points from his high in March, 1962, following an international disarmament conference that led to draft treaties between the US and USSR on nuclear disarmament, an attempt to set the Doomsday clock back a few minutes.  A clock Kennedy had dramatically pushed forward during those 13 days in October, 1962.

There was growing disgruntlement with Kennedy on both the right and the left.  The Birchers went so far as to distribute "Wanted for Treason" leaflets prior to his arrival in Dallas on that fateful day, and there was much anxiety in the South over the civil rights legislation the Kennedy administration was proposal.  The Dixiecrats had effectively been able to block all legislation, but Kennedy is probably best remembered desegregation attempts at the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama, which became battle cries for Southerners determined to keep Jim Crow laws in place.

Kennedy was also having a hard time getting a tax cut bill through Congress, which he felt would go a long way to easing the US out of economic recession.  Seems the post-war boom had finally abated, and the Kennedy administration was looking for any kind of stimulus to get things moving again.

A Fair Housing bill had also stalled in Congress, which Johnson would get passed in 1964 along with all the other bills the Kennedy administration had failed to get moving, precipitating a massive boom in public housing across the country, which indeed would get the economy moving again.

One certainly has to credit John F. Kennedy for all these initiatives, but they probably would have all died on the vine if it hadn't been for that great transformative event on November 22 1963.  Robert Caro argues, as have other historians, that by acting quickly Johnson was able to use JFK's death to mobilize Congress in a way that hadn't occurred since the end of the Civil War.

Of course, FDR had passed some monumental legislation during his time, but he too had been afraid to touch Jim Crow laws.  The first real dents came with the desegregation of the military of the military in 1949 by Truman, and the famous Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which Eisenhower enforced by having Ruby Bridges escorted to her first day of elementary school in New Orleans.  Civil Rights legislation was eventually enacted in 1964, and a federal ban on lynching finally passed through Congress in 1968, after having first been rejected by Roosevelt out of fear of losing the Southern vote.

As history becomes a blur, it seems most Americans point to Kennedy as that great transformative figure in contemporary events.  He received an even higher approval rating than Ronald Reagan, which is pretty impressive in this day and age.  Of course, Lyndon Johnson is all but forgotten, but it is safe to say that without LBJ there would not have been this great JFK legacy.

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