Kennedy, 50 Years Later: Understanding a Legacy

Today, November 22, 2013, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A tragic occurrence to recall, it affords us as Americans the chance to consider not only the life that was lost that day, who he was as a person and a president, and the true merits of his virtues as a leader, but also, in a more reflexive way, the nature of legacies in American politics—how we remember and mourn those who wear the mantels of our highest offices.

In the half-century since Kennedy’s death, there has come to be such a fervor surrounding his memory that to dampen it with discussions of the merits of his policies and his quality as a president is often treated—explicitly or implicitly—as being in bad taste. Nonetheless, it is important for each of us as Americans interested in the well-being of our country and the freedom of its people to do just that: to consider what the man accomplished in his three short years as president, as well as the spirit and tone of the administration he led.

On paper, the policies of the Kennedy administration can fairly be considered a mixed lot. Surely, President Kennedy’s subtle decision to escalate US involvement in Vietnam was not only deplorable but entirely out of line with the anti-war youth who would idolize his memory in ensuing years. In economic policy, the spirit he evoked as a candidate and the policies he pursued as president showed far too great a comfort with fascistic intrusions into industry—most notably with his attack on the steel industry in 1962 in which steel executives were dragged in by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, interrogated by the FBI, and threatened with antitrust suits and IRS punishments, all for simply raising the prices of the goods that they produced. (It is also worth noting that leftists have long since treated this episode as a model for presidents to follow in their relations with private business).

In the end, perhaps the best policy of the Kennedy administration was its choice to reduce taxes—both alleviating their burden on businesses and increasing government revenue in the process. This, however, despite the added influx of funds it afforded the federal government and the economic benefits it yielded, was not one of the lessons that leftists chose to derive from Kennedy’s term. Most have opted instead for the nihilistic approach of the New Left, raising taxes, as Obama put it in 2008, “for the purposes of fairness”, even if it damages the economy. In that sense, perhaps the best policy decision of Kennedy’s term is the one most evaded by those who supported him.

On a personal level, Kennedy was likewise of doubtful character. Looking beyond policy to his actions and statements as a man (a necessary endeavor, considering how much the Kennedys presented their family life and image as part of the presidential persona), one finds disappointment in a seemingly endless stream of marital affairs (with socialites, actresses, his wife’s press secretary, an East German prostitute with communist ties, White House secretaries, an intern, etc.), lewdness (hosting nude White House pool parties; asking his nineteen-year-old intern mistress to perform sex acts on an aide in the White House pool), and personal dishonesty, all highlighted by repeated statements to everyone from the British Prime Minister to a senate aide that “If I don’t have sex every day, I get a headache.”

While many will attempt to partition a man’s personal actions from their professional evaluation of him, those who understand the nature of character and of integrity as belonging to a man in full, without exemption or caveat, will see such personal features as inextricable in their assessment of him. They will understand that a man does not become a different person when he locks his desk and loosens his tie at the end of the day, but that the weaknesses that undo him in private will, unless repaired, stay with him throughout the performance of his work.

How, then, should we view the late president’s legacy? Is the reverent spirit of the many books, magazine covers, television specials, films, and editorials enshrining his memory misplaced? Have the praises outshined their object? In many senses, yes. Tragic endings tend to provoke a measure of idealization that often distorts how e might otherwise feel about a person. It is an interesting exercise in alternate history to consider how we might regard Kennedy if he had not been assassinated and had been left to fulfill his term (probably two terms). Unfortunately, it will forever remain an unanswerable question.

Nonetheless, there is something of value and of true substance to America’s reverence for John F. Kennedy. When an individual pays his admiration to something—be it another person, an object, an idea—he is as much an integral part of that reverence as the object of his respect. One cannot attribute any evaluation to an object without implicitly saying something about oneself. When a man says “I regard…”, he says something about himself first of all. He announces the price of his respect and whether that object can afford it.

When Americans look to Kennedy as an ideal, it must be admitted that many are uneducated to his policy actions and are unaware of at least some of his more dubious personal statements and misdeeds. When they pay their respects, they pay them to an image of a president—the image he conveyed and the messages he spoke, whether or not he was in all cases adequate to fulfill them. When they lift their heads, they do so to his office and to the idea of a man worthy of it. When they mourn his loss, they mourn the sight of a heinous disgrace to the American political system, a system that has, throughout its history, conspicuously avoided the baser vices of political conflict: violence, assassination, and fear. Surely it can be counted among the greatest virtues of American political life that the death of one leader should be mourned so poignantly a half century later and not taken as a mere condition of social existence.

Could the real John Kennedy fill the suit of the man in his portrait? It is a difficult question, but I am inclined to say no. Is the solution to dismiss him as a hypocrite and cast him aside as so many revisionist historians have tried to do with our Founding Fathers? Again, I answer no. Rather, I propose that this fiftieth anniversary of the death of Kennedy should be greeted as an occasion to remember the distances that often exist between a leader’s true nature and his legacy; a chance to acknowledge these discrepancies, and to remember that our ultimate allegiance should be neither to such persons, nor flags, nor founding documents, but to our principles and to the others only when they embody them. With this in mind, we can revisit the legacies of Kennedy and others anew, granting no quarter to those qualities of which we disapprove and paying our highest honors to the virtues that remain. In that spirit, we can stand together as Americans today in respect and mourning for the loss of an American icon and a tenant of our highest office.

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