Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Death and Transfiguration of JFK

It seems we will have another Kennedy Love-In this Fall as this November will mark 50 years since his assassination.  It is really remarkable how the legacy of Kennedy lives on.  My feeling it is more about the promise that his presidency held than it is any policies he set, but Larry Sabato, the director of UVA's Center of Politics believes fully that Kennedy was a transformative figure in American politics.

I suppose a lot of it has to do with the way LBJ literally carried his predecessor's torch as he pushed through Civil Rights legislation that had been first put forward by the Kennedy administration.  But, in reading Caro's recent book on LBJ and other accounts it is highly unlikely Kennedy would have ever gotten that legislation through Congress on his own, as it took someone with the determination and means of LBJ to get the bill passed by a very conservative Congress.  However, Kennedy is still given much of the credit for this and other legislation that was passed during the Johnson years.

The myth of Camelot has been nurtured by many others.  It was a time when the Presidency almost felt like nobility and Kennedy certainly surrounded himself with some of the best and brightest of cabinet members that offered a bold new agenda for a modern era.  However, America still seemed mired in a Cold War mentality that neither the Kennedy nor the Johnson administrations were able to shake.

Kennedy is probably best remembered for facing down Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis, which cost Nikita his premiership.  Even Caro contrasted a cool, level-headed Kennedy to a hot-tempered Johnson, as he portrays reason trumping emotion in this highly-charged episode.  But, there is little to suggest that Kennedy would have handled Vietnam any differently than Johnson, which LBJ became saddled with.

In many ways Kennedy was as conservative as his predecessors, but what set him apart was the vigor he was able to project in the Presidency and a bold spirit that captivated the world.  He embraced novel ideas like Peace Corps, but at the same time plotted third world coups as Eisenhower and Truman had done.  His untimely death elevated him above the more sordid aspects of his administration, and he became projected as the liberal ideal, especially with Johnson's administration bogged down with the Vietnam War in his second term.

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