Fifty Years Ago in Dallas: JFK Presidency, Assassination Change History

 

Fifty years ago—on November 22, 1963—President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, forever changing American politics.

How might history have been different had that fateful day in Dallas not occurred? How did the assassination color the legacy of Kennedy’s short presidency?

JFKmass-1965

A memorial Catholic mass honoring the late President John F. Kennedy was held in the University Center Ballroom on November 25, 1963.

“The difficulty of assessing Kennedy, which is also part of his glittering memory, is that he was cut off at precisely the right moment,” UT history professor Dan Feller said. “One is free to imagine all kinds of promises, some of which might have been fulfilled and some of which might have not.”

The public presidency

Kennedy was the first television president. His image was shaped, in part, by public relations experts and speech writers.

“Kennedy and his staff understood the value of image and they manipulated it to the maximum,” UT political science professor Mike Fitzgerald said. “He brought glamor into politics, and thereby demonstrated the power of personality in a world dominated by mass media. Kennedy personified the power of image to shape public perceptions; however, in the long run, reality outruns image. That’s why Kennedy’s reputation is now so controversial.”

For instance, both professors noted, Kennedy’s spin doctors portrayed him as a man with tremendous family values. They made sure he was seen as a vigorous, healthy man – sailing, playing touch football, swimming and otherwise being athletic and vigorous.

“In fact, we now know, he was involved in marital infidelity and he was taking a cocktail of medicines for serious chronic health problems,” Fitzgerald said.

In some ways, Feller said, Kennedy’s death ushered in the era of lost naiveté. Presidential lives are more publicly scrutinized. Rather than being shocked, the public now expects scandal and wrongdoing.

For example, Feller said, Kennedy drew only minimal criticism when he appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, as attorney general.

“You would never get away with that now,” Feller said. “Since Watergate, it’s been in our minds that the attorney general might have to investigate the president.

“One could make an argument that we’re wiser now, but you could also say we’ve become so cynical that our country is becoming ungovernable.”

Students celebrate as John F. Kennedy is elected on November 8, 1960.

Students celebrate as John F. Kennedy is elected on November 8, 1960.

Kennedy’s administration also changed the way presidents communicate with the American people.

“His presidency set a standard for the ‘public presidency’—press conferences, speeches around the country, addresses out of the Oval Office,” Fitzgerald said. In particular, his Oval Office messages about the Cuban missile crisis and his speech instructing that nation that the “time had come for action on civil rights” were examples of how a president could both sway and reassure the public in troubled times.

“You had style and substance,” Fitzgerald said. “In terms of communicating with the American people, the only president to even come close has been Ronald Reagan.”

From Berlin to Vietnam

Kennedy’s administration is credited with a list of accomplishments.

“The limited test ban treaty of 1963 signaled the beginning of détente during the Cold War,” Fitzgerald said. “While it didn’t end the nuclear arms race, it did set a precedent that we and the Soviets could negotiate.”

Kennedy’s European visit that included his famous speech at the Berlin Wall “was among the most successful state visits in US history,” Fitzgerald said. “It polished the image of the presidency and the United States overseas, and he endeared himself to Western Europe.”

“His administration made significant efforts to engage Latin America,” Fitzgerald said, pointing to Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress,” which increased US aid for some countries and sought greater economic development and political reform in the region. “However, at the same time we continued to have CIA covert operations against political figures and regimes in Latin America that we didn’t like.”

Kennedy created the Peace Corps and set the stage for educational reforms and civil rights legislation. Decisions he made also led to the Vietnam War.

What if …

Still, it’s impossible to know how the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other critical issues of the day would have unfolded under Kennedy rather than Lyndon Johnson.

“With Kennedy you are free to imagine that he would have avoided further involvement in Vietnam and achieved greater civil rights without all of the conflict,” Feller said. “You’re free to extrapolate all of the wonderful things that could have happened – and you can pin the not-so-wonderful things that did happen on Johnson.”

Fitzgerald also speculates that Kennedy might be remembered much differently had he been a two-term president.

“It would have been increasingly hard for him to keep a lid on the covert underside of the White House, as well as his health problems and the rumors about his infidelity,” Fitzgerald said. “I think his second term would have been very rocky.”

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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