As I See It

Behind the haze of Kennedy memories

Updated: 2013-11-20T00:14:02Z


Special to The Star

My Aunt Jackie followed two major obsessions in her life: cigarettes and John F. Kennedy. I remember visiting her house as a child in the early 1970s and seeing, through the menthol haze, a blanket on the couch that bore the image of President Kennedy against a presidential blue background. Similar pictures could be seen throughout the house on coasters, old magazines, campaign buttons, and, inevitably, ashtrays.

If Jackie was obsessed, she was not alone. In the decade after his 1963 assassination, Americans consistently ranked Kennedy as one of our greatest presidents, trailing only Lincoln and, occasionally, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt. Historians were equally enthralled. Compared to successors such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, Kennedy’s star shone all the brighter.

His greatness was not immediately apparent to his contemporaries. In 1960 he won the presidency over his hangdog rival, Richard Nixon, by the closest of margins. A suspiciously strong turnout from the cemeteries of Cook County helped him load Illinois into his cart of electoral votes. He squeaked through in Missouri, and unsurprisingly was crushed in Kansas. No matter. By 1963, 59 percent of Americans had convinced themselves that they, too, had voted for the young senator from Massachusetts. This popularity came partly from Kennedy’s skillful image management. He had a beautiful family, a quick wit, and the appearance of youthful vigor — all in strong contrast to Eisenhower’s stolid look and middle-brow sensibility. The press swooned over Kennedy’s hosting a White House concert by the renowned cellist Pablo Casals.

But Kennedy was not all surface. He met a nation’s yearning for greater purpose with his pledge to send a man to the moon. He inspired youth with his call for service, and followed that up with the founding of Vista and, more famously, the Peace Corps, which has sent over 200,000 idealistic Americans abroad.

Kennedy also seemed to grow in office. The debacle of the Bay of Pigs was followed by the triumph of the Cuban missile crises, in which he stood up to the Soviets while displaying a commendable reluctance to destroy the world in a nuclear exchange. Under pressure from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bloody civil rights protests in Birmingham, Ala., Kennedy moved slowly toward embracing the African American freedom struggle.

This growth was cut short by the assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963.

Even as we approach the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the scar of that event remains raw. It is not just the trauma of a president gunned down, but the shock of promise lost.

If Kennedy inspired much of the idealism of the 1960s, would he have been able to steer this spirit toward fulfillment, or would he have stood by as it soured into radicalism?

If he was still developing as a statesman, would he have found the moral strength and political flexibility to halt our deepening involvement in Vietnam?

If he was still growing as a politician, could he have halted the slow erosion of our faith in government as a force for good?

Fifty years later, we still view John F. Kennedy through a haze of memory and myth, but on this somber anniversary, a panel of historians from the University of Kansas will convene at the Kansas City Public Library to help dispel the haze, if not the gloom, of this national ordeal.

Jeffrey P. Moran of Lawrence is the chairman of the Department of History at the University of Kansas. He is the chief convener of “The Kennedy Assassination: 50 Years Later,” which will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. Admission is free, but RSVPs are requested. Call 816-701-3407.

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