The presidency of John F. Kennedy, which ended 50 years ago, has become the standard by which his successors are measured.
From the machinations of LBJ to the darkness of Nixon, to Carter’s moralizing, Reagan’s release of the safety net, Bush 41’s mangled syntax, Clinton’s adulteries, W’s detachment and WMD, and Obama’s dour isolation — they all fall short, as JFK, forever young, remains atop a shining hill in an era his widow insisted would be forever mythologized as Camelot.
Would Kennedy’s presidency, in a second term, have lived up to the hagiography many Americans cherish? Dying young, dying tragically, dying with so much work ahead of him leaves little resolution, but continuing fascination.
John Kennedy was the first television president — so cool, so witty and self-deprecating with the press, beautiful wife, kids, family that seemed like royalty.
It was an age that wasn’t innocent, but in retrospect so appears, without wall-to-wall media, Twitter rumors, YouTube videos of embarrassing moments.
Heroes then, now, have feet of clay. JFK was in Texas those fateful November days to shore up re-election political support.
But if voters truly knew what was going on inside and outside the White House, Kennedy probably would have been a tough bet in 1964.
The president we long ago learned was engaged in numerous sexual affairs — as his wife, Jacqueline, was well aware.
To deal with Addison’s disease and back pain, he was taking powerful drugs that today would raise questions not just about the chemicals, but whether his health would permit a fully engaged second term.
And policy decisions made in the Kennedy administration were troubling.
Vietnam, despite the best and brightest presidential advisers, was spinning out of control — just weeks before Kennedy died, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered in a coup the U.S. was aware of beforehand.
Segregationists in Alabama were preventing black school children from attending white schools and turning dogs and fire hoses on freedom riders. Kennedy was reluctant to bring the federal government into the situation, perhaps worried about how it would cost him votes in the Deep South, although he finally did order in federal troops.
Cuba, which had gone communist during the administration of JFK’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had become an obsession.
After the humiliation of 1961’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion came 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, precipitated by the desire of Cuban leader Fidel Castro to strike back at the U.S. and prevent further moves to take down his regime.
Even after the threat of nuclear war passed, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and others in the administration were recruiting a gallery of nefarious characters to kill Castro.
Even though news accounts continue to blame right-wing elements in Dallas and elsewhere for creating a political atmosphere that would lead to Kennedy’s murder, Oswald was a left-wing zealot, probably aware of the administration’s efforts to take down Castro.
Consider that Castro gave an interview to the Associated Press in Havana before the assassination where he seemed to say Kennedy’s life was at risk: “I know the Americans are trying to kill me and if this continues there will be retribution.” The story ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Oswald read the Times-Picayune avidly while in New Orleans. That helps explain why the Cuban leader knew right away after hearing of the assassination he would be blamed.
Did Castro’s agents somehow encourage Oswald to carry out his scheme? Castro has said no, that when Oswald visited the Cuban embassy in Mexico City the month before he killed Kennedy, the Cubans considered him a provocateur.
Castro has agreed with wrong-headed conspiracy theorists that rogue elements in the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans somehow put together the plot.
Like many Americans today, Castro has wondered what could have been with the young president, what could have happened had he not been cut down in Dealey Plaza.
We know more — just as we’ll never know.