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November, 22, 1963: The Birth of a Legacy

Lasting power is accorded to only a handful of presidents, especially after their death. There is no doubt that John Kennedy is one of the few. How did it happen?

When John F. Kennedy entered the presidential limousine at Love Field, he began his ride into history. The journey continues, and we call it the Kennedy legacy.

At its core, a legacy is a bequest. Every president wants to hand down a dazzling record to posterity, and each occupant of the Oval Office dreams he will be elevated to the pantheon of “the greats.” But what presidents imagine their legacy to be usually differs from what cruel fate dictates.

Every president’s legacy is a strange, evolving thing. It transforms itself from year to year and generation to generation. Some memories fade while others come into sharper focus because of new circumstances, perhaps more revelations from the past or a transformation in the present that makes once-insignificant events loom large. A president’s legacy is a struggle in public relations, too. The former chief executive and his family and staff seek to enhance it, to airbrush away the blemishes while emphasizing the achievements, as they conceive of them. Opponents of the president rarely go into hibernation with his retirement or death; old grudges and fresh agendas can make a former president a continuing target. Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for forty years. Republicans have targeted Jimmy Carter for over thirty. This sad destiny is usually spared public figures who exit through the brutality of assassination. Martyrdom’s blood and tears can wash away grievous sins — the martyr’s and our own.

Long after a president has left Washington, journalists ferret out hidden secrets that affect his image for good or ill. Tidbits about their terms still dominate headlines with regularity. Far peskier and unrelenting than reporters are the historians and political scientists. For us, time stands still and there is never a final deadline. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are still being reevaluated virtually on an annual basis. There is value in such constant churning, in part because our society’s unceasing search for the right path can be guided by roads already taken, and our developing values can find new expression in past precedent. The scholar Merrill Peterson’s view of Jefferson, one of Kennedy’s favorite predecessors, applies just as well to JFK:

The guiding concept, the Jefferson image, may be defined as the composite representation of the historic personage and of the ideas and ideals, policies and sentiments, habitually identified with him. The image is highly complex and never stationary. It is a mixed product of memory and hope, fact and myth, love and hate, of the politician’s strategy, the patriot’s veneration, and the scholar’s quest… It is posterity’s configuration of Jefferson. Even more, however, it is a sensitive reflector, through several generations, of America’s troubled search for the image of itself.

Not only is there a need for this presidential revisionism, there is — to judge by book sales — a popular appetite for statesmen’s modified biographies centuries after they departed the scene. Such a prospect is both comforting and frightening to modern presidents. They know they will not be completely forgotten, and the less successful among them hope for redemption. Yet they also recognize history’s unpredictability. Unforeseen circumstances may cause their administration’s high points to appear irrelevant and their decisions unwise. While breath remains in their body, they work directly or through associates to spin pundits and commentators for generous evaluations. Beyond the grave, former presidents will be unknowing, but their survivors often continue the effort.

Eventually, however, the public relations fog lifts. There are few or no people left with a personal stake in promoting or condemning ex-presidents; this may be the first point of historical clarity. In the case of John Kennedy, we are almost at that moment. While JFK’s family continues to be prominent and ever-vigilant about the Kennedy image, the clan’s political power has waned enormously. With the death of Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009, the family’s last political powerhouse left the scene. Few JFK aides remain alive. In another quarter century only a relative handful of Americans will personally recall the Kennedy years.

A half century from John Kennedy’s death, we can finally see more plainly. We can separate fact from fiction and reality from myth. We can assess the true impact of a short presidency that has had a sharp silhouette. Has it really been fifty years? For those who lived during the Kennedy administration, the images of that brief epoch are still so vivid that time often seems to stand still. The vibrancy of those memories underscores this book’s focus: the legacy left by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, in this, the fiftieth year since his life ended in a hail of gunfire.

Kennedy served less than three years as chief executive before he was brutally slain in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Many presidents who stayed four or even eight years in the White House have been largely forgotten. Yet JFK regularly ranks as one of the best in surveys of the public, and his words are employed more often than those of all but a handful of other statesmen by officeholders and candidates today.

What has set Kennedy apart? Was it singular style, exceptional substance, or a special mix of the two that has made his short presidency such a touchstone for other politicians, academics, everyday Americans, and people around the world?

In an age of punishing political polarization, when the right and the left are constantly at eachother’s throats, President Kennedy — a forceful partisan in his time — has become a standard exemplar of bipartisanship. For Democrats, he is in the permanent pantheon of party saints, the man who restored unto them the White House after an eight-year period of GOP control and whose popularity continued them in power even after his death. Of course, many modern Democrats have forgotten just how conservative many of JFK’s policies were; they have blurred the Kennedy picture, confusing John with his brothers Robert and Edward, whose politics became much more liberal after JFK’s assassination.

For Republicans, John Kennedy’s muscular foreign policy (after a shaky start), his strong anticommunism, and his enthusiastic backing of free-market capitalism and broad-based income tax cuts have made him a favored, or at least an acceptable, Democratic president — one frequently cited in speeches and television advertisements by GOP politicians. The goal of this partisan cross-dressing is obvious: to portray Republicans as closer to the Kennedy tradition than some current Democrats.

A political party borrows only the brightest stars from the other party’s firmament, so this establishes the standard: The legacy of John F. Kennedy has proven durable and popular, even in the face of many distasteful personal revelations about JFK. This book will explain how and why.

The initial focus here is Kennedy’s prepresidential career, followed by an examination of his precedent-setting 1960 effort to win the White House — in many ways, the first truly modern campaign for the presidency. A look at the highlights of his abbreviated term in office follows. And then the moment no one will ever forget; the tragedy in Dallas, which has become an ongoing murder mystery and a fascinating Rorschach test about one’s view of life, politics, and the nation’s path since 1963. I will offer some new perspectives on a fifty-year-old puzzle and take a balanced look at the charges and countercharges in the crime of the century. I have also been able to make significant progress in analyzing a key piece of evidence that sheds light on the events of November 22.

John Kennedy’s life and death were just the beginning of the legacy making. The notion of Camelot, invented shortly after the assassination by JFK’s widow, Jacqueline, took hold immediately. Practically the entire JFK agenda, which had been stalled in Congress, was passed as a tribute to the late president. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, effectively used public remorse over Kennedy’s killing to do far more than JFK had planned or even probably hoped for in a second term. This book traces not just LBJ’s use of JFK but the ways all nine of Kennedy’s White House successors have drawn from his record and image to support their own initiatives and to deflect criticism from their own performance.

The source of this long-lasting Kennedy influence is not hard to determine: It is public opinion. Americans had a positive view of JFK throughout his White House years, and the assassination solidified, elevated, and made inviolable the power of his name. For the first time ever, extensive polling and focus groups have been employed in the course of the research for this volume to study how adult Americans of all ages remember a U.S. president. I believe the methods used for this book will become the standard for judging presidents’ long-term influence. Conducted by the renowned polling firm of Hart Research Associates, and supervised by the firm’s chairman, Peter D. Hart, and president, Geoff Garin, the study is the most extensive ever done to assess a long-ago White House. A large sample (2,009) of American adults was surveyed about every major facet of President Kennedy’s record. The online poll included film clips of some critical moments in the Kennedy presidency. The sample was representative of the overall u.s. population and also big enough to allow for conclusions about change across generations. Hart and Garin separated out the people who had lived through (and presumably had some conscious memory of) the Kennedy years — those who were aged fifty-five and older at the time of the poll. The respondents younger than fifty-five perceive JFK in secondhand ways, from school textbooks, the media, older friends, and family members.

The quantitative survey was supplemented with six more qualitative, videotaped “focus groups” of fifteen to twenty people in each of three cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and Richmond, Virginia. Focus group discussions can add depth to the bare-bones data yielded by a poll. The entire survey and the focus group findings can be viewed at this book’s website, Only highlights are presented in the book, and I invite you to explore the rich trove of online information we have compiled about Kennedy. Supplementing the surveys are personal interviews with many individuals directly connected to the Kennedy administration, the assassination, and subsequent White House administrations.

This study of John F. Kennedy’s life and legacy is far from dusty history; it is less about Kennedy in his time than about Kennedy in our time. I believe it reveals a great deal about our country, and about what matters to us as a nation as we cope with the enormous problems confronting us. Leaders want to create a positive legacy, and citizens should encourage them to travel that path. At the end of the book, I identify some useful lessons that can be learned by presidents, and the rest of us, from the Kennedy example.

Political power is created in many ways, such as winning an election, facing down an enemy, or skillfully riding the waves of popular opinion. But lasting power is accorded to only a handful of presidents, especially after their death. There is no doubt that John Kennedy is one of the few. How did it happen? Why does his influence persist, and will it continue? What are the effects? These questions and more are answered in the pages of this book.

Image credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

A complete list of sources can be found in the book. The above is an excerpt from the bookThe Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy by Larry J. Sabato. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

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Copyright © 2013 Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy

Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, is the founder and director of the renowned Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He has appeared on dozens of national television and radio programs, including 60 Minutes, Today, Hardball, and Nightline. He has coanchored the BBC’s coverage of U.S. presidential returns and inaugurations, and has authored or edited more than a dozen books on American politics, including the highly praised A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised — Ideas to Inspire a New Generation. His other books include Feeding Frenzy, about press coverage of politicians; The Rise of Political Consultants; and Barack Obama and the New America. Sabato runs the acclaimed Crystal Ball website, which has the most comprehensive and accurate record of election analysis in the country. In 2001, the University of Virginia gave him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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