JFK in context

Like most commemorated events other than wars, the importance of the JFK assasination tends to be overstated. Unless one believes that Kennedy would have pulled the U.S. out of the Vietnam War that he, the quintessential cold warrior, plunged us into and vowed to win, or that he would have found a way to win it before the death count got out of hand, American history would likely have played itself out pretty much the same way it did, assasination or not.

Kennedy’s charisma would not have prevented the floodgate-opening known as the Sixties. In fact, it was insufficient to advance his legislative agenda, which had stalled almost completely in 1963.

Would it have been sufficient, say, to prevent Blacks from rioting in cities across America? Of course not.

The Great Man theory of history should never be discounted entirely. But Kennedy was not a Great Man.

To be sure, he cut a fine figure. This impressed many, especially among the Washington press corps. But it also led to widespread ridicule, albeit fairly light-hearted. Comedian Vaughn Meader’s famous record album, which Kennedy admitted annoyed him, provides a sense of this.

At the time of the assasination, Kennedy’s approval rating was close to 60 percent. Not bad, but hardly unprecedented, even among presidents who are now widely regareded as flops.

Popular as he was, Kennedy’s reelection prospects were not entirely sunny. Republicans had shown strength in key industrial states, having won gubernatorial races in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Three of these governors — Nelson Rockefeller, Bill Scranton, and George Romney — were considered possible presidential challengers of some strength.

Moreover, Kennedy had become unpopular in the South, presumably in large part due to having proposed landmark civil legislation. Indeed, he was in Texas on November 22, 1963 mainly to shore up support in that vital state.

Kennedy expected a close election in 1964. It is clear, however, that he would have defeated Barry Goldwater, who turned out to be the Republican nominee.

Let’s remember, though, that second presidential terms almost never go as well as first terms.

It is said that the Kennedy assasination ended American innocence. This is true in a sense. But that innocence was already threatened on many fronts. It requires an overly sentimental gaze to believe that Kennedy could have held off those threats for long.


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