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John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later
Was the murdered President one of our best, a man of “vigor, rationality, and noble vision” or was he “an optical illusion,” “an expensively programmed waxwork”? A noted historian examines the mottled evolution of his reputation.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
The murder of John F. Kennedy twenty years ago last month occasioned an overwhelming sense of grief that may be without parallel in our history. When the news first was announced, people wept openly in the streets, and during the painful weekend that followed, as the mesmerizing images of the youthful President and his family were flashed again and again on the television screens, the feeling of deprivation deepened. A San Francisco columnist reported: “It is less than 72 hours since the shots rang out in Dallas, yet it seems a lifetime—a lifetime of weeping skies, wet eyes and streets. … Over the endless weekend, San Francisco looked like a city that was only slowly emerging from a terrible bombardment. Downtown, on what would normally have been a bustling Saturday, the people walked slowly, as in shock, their faces pale and drawn, their mood as somber as the dark clothes they wore under the gray skies.”
To the slain President’s admirers and associates, his death signified not merely a cruel personal loss but the end of an era. “For all of us, life goes on—but brightness has fallen from the air,” observed his special counsel Theodore Sorensen. “A Golden age is over and it will never be again.” One of Kennedy’s earliest biographers, William Manchester, had jotted down on the morning of Kennedy’s Inauguration the words of the sixteenth-century martyr, Hugh Latimer. “We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace … as I trust shall never be put out.” “Now,” Manchester wrote, “the light was gone from our lives, and I was left to grope in the darkness of the dead past. ” At the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson rose to say, “We will bear the grief of his death to the day of ours.”
Yet the mourning for Kennedy was by no means limited to his circle; it was felt no less deeply by those who had been his critics and adversaries. Few had commented more caustically on the New Frontier than Norman Mailer. But Mailer now declared: “What one has written about Kennedy was not reverent. Now, in the wake of the President’s assassination, a sense of real woe intrudes itself. For it may be that John F. Kennedy’s best claim to greatness was that he made an atmosphere possible in which one could be critical of him, biting, whimsical, disrespectful, imaginative, even out of line. It was the first time in America’s history that one could mock the Presidency on so high a level, and we may have to live for half a century before such a witty and promising atmosphere exists again.” Nor was Mailer alone. In Guinea, Sékou Touré stated, “I have lost my only true friend in the outside world,” and in Algiers, Ben Bella, his voice breaking, said, “I can’t believe it. Believe me, I’d rather it happen to me than to him.”
Such expressions were not atypical but representative, for the most conspicuous aspect of the anguish over the assassination was its worldwide character. In London more than a thousand traveled from distant parts of the city to pay homage at the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and the same instinct drew mourners to the American missions in Moscow and in Cairo, in Madras and in Tananarive. On the hillsides in Kampala by the residence of the American envoy, Ugandans sat in a silent vigil. From Yokohama a correspondent wrote: “Immediately when there came the news of Mr. Kennedy’s death, there was a silencing of life here and then a siege of grief as I have never seen before and never thought possible in Japan. No one told the Japanese to be shocked: they just cried with pain and anger and sorrow, as if the human psyche had been slammed in a car door, and maimed.”
What was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise. His legend is based on what might have been.
In Britain the BBC’s “That Was The Week That Was,” a program distinguished by its impiety toward authority, called Kennedy “the first Western politician to make politics a respectable profession for thirty years,” and in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, David Gourlay went so far as to say, “For the first time in my life I think I know how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was crucified.”
In the United States historians were not immune from such sentiments, though they were inclined to be more restrained. Even in 1963 they were reluctant to subscribe to the sentiment revealed by Public Opinion Quarterly, which found that “a full half of the adult population” in America judged Kennedy to be “one of the two or three best Presidents the country ever had.” Yet a good many historians were disposed to give him good marks. James MacGregor Burns, who had taken a detached view of Kennedy in his exemplary campaign biography, concluded that, as a dramatizer of issues, Kennedy rated with Lincoln, while Arthur Link, author of the definitive multivolume life of Woodrow Wilson, observed that Kennedy brought to the White House “qualities of vigor, rationality, and noble vision matched only by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt in this century. It is too early to try to fix his place among the Presidents, but I am inclined to believe that historians will rank him as a great President.”