JFK Reconsidered

CAMBRIDGE – November 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For people alive at the time, it was one of those events that are so shocking that you remember where you were when you heard the news. I was getting off a train in Nairobi when I saw the dramatic headline.

Kennedy was only 46 when he was killed in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled former Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union. Though his life had been plagued by illness, Kennedy projected an image of youth and vigor that added to the drama and poignancy of his death.

Martyrdom led many Americans to elevate Kennedy to the ranks of great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; but historians have been more restrained in their evaluations. Critics point to his sometimes reckless sexual behavior; to his scant legislative record; and to his failure to match words with deeds. While Kennedy spoke about civil rights, tax cuts, and reducing poverty, it was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who used Kennedy’s martyrdom and his own far more impressive political skills to pass historic legislation in these areas.

A 2009 poll of 65 American presidential scholars rated JFK as the sixth most important president, while a recent survey of British experts on American politics put Kennedy in 15th place. Those are impressive rankings for a president who was in office for less than three years, but what did Kennedy really accomplish and how might history have been different if he had survived?