By contrast, JFK’s defenders insist the US president had been a skeptic about the use of ground troops in Vietnam, that he distrusted gung-ho voices in the military and would have found a way to wrench the US out of that quagmire.
On civil rights, that other defining struggle of the 1960s, the argument is equally divided. Admirers cite John Kennedy’s televised address to the nation, referring to the battle over racial segregation as a moral crisis, and his readiness to use the National Guard to force the whites-only universities of the south to open up to black students.
Those less enamored say he was late to the issue and that he was unlikely to have been willing or able to ram through the landmark civil rights legislation eventually passed by Johnson.
“Kennedy had no great understanding of the impatience of African Americans or the intransigence of white southerners, while Johnson — from Texas — understood both,” Cambridge professor of US history Tony Badger says.
JFK, says Badger, was more “scared of the south” than Johnson, adding the reminder that Jackie Kennedy referred to US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr as that “terrible” man. There is a similar debate over Johnson’s “war on poverty,” with Kennedy advocates insisting that everything Johnson did, JFK would have done too, if he only had had the chance.
More clear-cut, and usually held up as the unambiguously golden part of JFK’s legacy, is his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As those over 60 cannot forget, the world held its breath for those few days, genuinely believing the stand-off between Washington and Moscow over the Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba could end in Armageddon.
JFK was cool-headed, faced down Washington’s hawks and showed great creativity, and even empathy, in his dealings with then-Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. In pulling back from the abyss, JFK secured his place in history (and laid the ground for the Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty signed weeks before his death).
Knowing his standing would never be higher, he turned to Jackie when the crisis was finally resolved and said: “Well, if anyone’s ever going to shoot me, this would be the day they should do it.”
Yet judging Kennedy by this standard, assessing his policy failures and successes, is to slightly miss the point. His appeal, and the enduring power of his memory, lies elsewhere.
For one thing, he was that rare politician able to inspire.
The young especially responded to his call: “Ask not what your country can do for you,” while his declaration in a city divided by the Cold War that “Ich bin ein Berliner” resonated throughout East Europe. Less than three years in office, he nevertheless conjured up oratory and imagery that retain their hold half a century later.
There is no use pretending that sex and glamor were not at the heart of this. JFK looked young, vigorous and handsome, and he had a beautiful wife to match. Stark was the contrast with both his predecessors in the Oval Office and his counterparts abroad: How different he looked from then-British prime minister Harold Macmillan, then-West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and then-French president Charles de Gaulle. He appeared like a new leader for a new era.
That image has endured far beyond the archive footage. JFK established a template for political leadership that is still in place, in the US and around the world. Kennedyesque is still the style, the demeanor, that candidates for high office aspire to: slim, energetic, accompanied by a supremely elegant spouse. Whether it is Obama in Ray-Bans or British Prime Minister David Cameron on the beach with Samantha, JFK remains the model.