Tonawanda News

Columns

November 24, 2013

DUVALL: JFK's legacy obscured by Dallas

Tonawanda News — I’ve always been fascinated by the American presidency. My favorite television show ever is “West Wing.” I’ve read lots of books on the topic and regular readers of this column know I’ve tried your patience on the topic more times than I can remember.

So it would stand to reason I’ve always been fascinated by the JFK story, of his life, his influence, and of course, his tragic death.

But all the talk about the grassy knoll and theories about a conspiracy, the incredible assassination of the assassin on live television — I’ve always thought it obscured a better conversation. 

So let us ask not of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death. Let us ask this instead: What if he had lived?

It’s a question admittedly fraught with peril for obvious reasons — we have no idea how his presidency would have ended if he’d had the chance. Would he have gone down as the greatest president ever? How would his legacy be tied to the civil rights movement and the racial tension that erupted in the years after his death? Would he have had the vision to avoid the historic folly of Vietnam? What if he had been around to see his vision of Americans walking on the moon happen?

The obvious answer is we just don’t know.

But there are indications, at least, that can lead us to a fair assessment of JFK’s legacy, albeit an incomplete one.

At the time of his death he enjoyed popularity numbers that are unprecedented by today’s standard. Fifty-nine percent of Americans approved of their charismatic leader — a figure Barack Obama and George W. Bush would love to claim. 

Even conservatives who disdained much of Kennedy’s agenda still liked him personally. 

I’ve always thought his most impactful legacy wasn’t the Apollo program, though that certainly can’t be overlooked. It was Kennedy’s brash political move to cast off the political support of segregationist white Southern Democrats and get behind the push for civil rights legislation. It permanently alienated Democrats in much of the South — and that legacy remains a mainstay of American politics to this day, with the South still counted as the power base of the Republicans. It was, in some respects, political suicide at the time.

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