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.
Kennedy, let’s not forget, won election in a razor-thin race where what’s thought of now as reliably blue Illinois and New York cast the deciding electoral votes.
The decision is among the most courageous Kennedy, the war hero whose autobiography was titled “Lessons in Courage,” ever made.
It’s also a study in why to do the right thing is almost always also to do the smart thing. Kennedy never could have predicted the tidal wave of demographic change that would come in the generations after him. Earning the support of what was then a political nonfactor in minorities whose votes would never solidify an election seems so incredibly prescient in a 21st century America, by the middle of which whites will no longer be a majority.
Kennedy’s civil rights law — which Johnson signed but was on its way to passage when JFK traveled to Dallas in 1963 — more than any other piece of legislation has solidified what, at least as of now, appears a growing Democratic majority five decades after his death. It is a stunning political achievement too often overlooked.
There is, of course, Apollo. Putting men on the moon is a feat that speaks for itself and Kennedy deserves credit for the bold vision to publicly challenge the nation to get it done in a decade. The side effects, though, can’t be overstated. The technology boom that accompanied much of the frenetic scientific invention tied to the space program provided a foundation for the giant leaps made in electronics, aviation, communication and energy, to name but a few.
And perhaps more than any other, Kennedy’s legacy is to public service. He empowered young people and challenged them to serve others before themselves. They signed up for the Peace Corps in staggering numbers. One wonders what kind of post-presidential legacy Kennedy could have built had he lived long enough to get the chance.
There were, of course, failures. He sowed the seeds of Vietnam. Cuba, the missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs — the entire national intelligence apparatus, really — was a disaster waiting to happen and twice almost did. Mistakes count too.
Sure, 50 years after that fateful day in Dallas we can ponder whether Oswald was really the lone gunman. If you put the assassination talk aside you’ve got a long list of things Kennedy did to change the world.
To me, that’s much more worth discussing.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.