These days it is only the world’s grandparents who can tell you where they were when they heard then-US president John F. Kennedy was dead. For decades, that was a staple of the global collective memory, a question that could be asked in Berlin or London as readily as New York or Los Angeles. On Friday last week, that memory became exactly 50 years old.
Despite its age, it is going strong. While some presidents, including those who occupied the White House for a full eight years, have struggled to be remembered at all 50 years after their deaths, Kennedy continues to loom large. His 1,036 days as president have been the subject of an unending stream of words — filling 40,000 books by one estimate, as well as countless documentaries, TV dramas and Hollywood movies. Like much else of this vast output, the latest film, Parkland, focuses on the very last of those thousand-odd days: Nov. 22, 1963.
Interest in JFK peaks for an anniversary, especially a big one. However, the truth is, it hardly ever wanes. The Kennedy aura remains a factor in US politics, even when there is no Kennedy on the ballot paper.
The standout moment of the 1988 campaign? When former US Senator Lloyd Bentsen squashed a callow Dan Quayle (then senator and later US vice president) during their vice presidential candidate debate by telling him: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
One of the lasting images of the 1992 race? Archive footage of JFK shaking the hand of 16-year-old US president-to-be Bill Clinton at the White House, cherished as if Camelot had witnessed King Arthur anointing a new prince.
There was similar symbolism — the passing of the torch — when in early 2008, US President Barack Obama won the endorsement of JFK’s brother, US Senator Ted Kennedy, and daughter, Caroline: Once he had their blessing, Obama looked unbeatable.
What explains this enduring grip on both the public and political imagination? The manner of John Kennedy’s death is central to any answer. The story of the 1963 assassination is so compelling, so full of human drama and pathos and, to this day, mystery — even those who accept that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole killer cannot agree on his true motive — that it refuses to rest.
However, the greater significance of that day in Dallas, Texas, beyond the arguments about the grassy knoll and the Zapruder film, is the effect the killing had on how the Kennedy presidency would be viewed thereafter. It would, forever, be a story of what might have been, of potential snuffed out before its time.
As then-British ambassador to the US David Ormsby-Gore wrote to Jackie Kennedy: “He had great things to do and he would have done them.”
Historians do something unusual when confronted with the 35th US president: They debate his actual record less than his potential record.
Take the Vietnam War, the shadow that would hang over the 1960s, thwarting its attempts to be the decade of peace and love. US involvement in that war escalated on JFK’s watch; by November 1963 the number of US troops in Vietnam had risen to 16,000. It was Kennedy, say his critics, who set the course his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would follow by increasing the US military presence to 480,000 during the next four years. After all, Johnson was surrounded by Kennedy’s advisers and insisted he was merely continuing Kennedy policy.