“Where were you, and what were you doing, when you first heard about President Kennedy’s death?” That question will be lofted many times in the next few weeks, as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
For millions of Americans, the response will be, “Why are you asking me? I wasn’t even born yet.” For those of us in upper age brackets it won’t be difficult for us to recall exactly the moment and our location when the shocking news from Dallas reached our ears.
I was at my desk at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. A few months earlier I had begun work as a writer in the university’s public relations office.
On that fateful day I was assigned to help set up a 1 p.m. photo session featuring dozens of donors to a program to improve athletic facilities. One of the contributors was Olympian oarsman Jack Kelly, brother of actress Grace Kelly.
As the 50-odd men and women assembled in a large room on campus, the atmosphere was subdued but tension-filled. By then we had all heard the initial facts about JFK’s death. And we all wanted to get the photo session over as soon as possible and then find the nearest TV set to watch Walter Cronkite and other news personnel render the final horrific details.
Disbelief filled the minds of many Americans on that afternoon. “Can such a thing have actually happened in this country?” Two days later the same question was repeated after nightclub owner Jack Ruby, using a .38-caliber revolver, fatally wounded presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he was paraded through a Dallas police station. If America’s reputation as a land of gun-happy cowboys needed any supporting juice, the events in Dallas provided it. Fifty years later, many observers would say that image remains fully in force.
As the next few weeks unroll toward the Nov. 22 marker, historians and pundits will pose various what-if questions. What if JFK had not been murdered? What if, a year later, he had been elected to a second term in office? Would he have done great things, or would his legacy have been tarnished by the vagaries of time, economics, his own limitations, and the crippling strategies of hate-filled opponents – much as Barack Obama is experiencing today?
Another fascinating question: If JFK were to run for president today, would he be elected? Would his Democratic Party even nominate him? Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby recently raised those questions. His comments are worth noting.
In his 1960 election campaign, Kennedy said, “I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort.” That position, announced today, would probably attract many more Republican voters than Democrats. His spending policies were far from liberal. As soon as JFK entered office, he enacted a pay cut for top-ranking White House staff members. Thereafter, his tight-fisted budgetary moves affected most sections of the federal government.
But not the Pentagon. Kennedy criticized outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, for letting the federal budget limit our military strategies. During JFK’s time in office, the nation’s defense spending climbed to 50 percent of the federal budget, a level that today would bring cries for impeachment from leading Democrats. And maybe even from a few Republicans.
Since his death, Kennedy has been enshrined as one of our country’s great liberals. Jacoby said that just isn’t true. As far back as 1946, when JFK first ran for Congress, a profile in Look magazine emphasized his conservatism. One quote said: “Hardly a liberal even by his own standards, Kennedy is mainly concerned by what appears to him as the coming struggle between collectivism and capitalism.”
Twelve years later, when JFK had been re-elected to the U.S. Senate and was clearly a future candidate for the White House, left-leaning icon Eleanor Roosevelt said she would do all she could to prevent a JFK victory if she were forced to choose between him and a liberal Republican such as Nelson Rockefeller.
In 1962, when Kennedy resumed nuclear testing, Nobel peace prizewinner Linus Pauling predicted that JFK would “go down in history as ... one of the greatest enemies of the human race.” Left-wing pundits roasted Kennedy for his failed Bay-of-Pigs adventure, and for his consistent support of tax cuts.
My own estimation of Jack Kennedy places neither a liberal nor a conservative label on his presidency. As with most occupants of the White House, he was to a great degree a creature of the circumstances and setting in which he found himself. After the Ike years the nation was hungry for excitement and glamour. JFK gave us a big dose of those things, on which no political label should be hung.