Most Americans of my generation can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been fatally shot 50 years ago because it was traumatic and it all but took place on television.
As a young teenager in 1960, I stood in the snows of Wisconsin passing out literature in the days leading up to my state’s primary. My father and mother were both loyal Democrats back then; my mother had served as president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the United Auto Workers, and before we moved to Wisconsin, my father played a key role in Adlai Stevenson’s Illinois state campaign during his 1956 run against President Dwight D. Eisenhower. By 1962, however, I was no longer a Democrat or a wild-eyed Kennedy fan, but his assassination seemed a personal as well as a national tragedy.
In the days that followed, the media and Democrats, who even then couldn’t let a crisis pass without exploiting it, blamed the young president’s killing on conservatives and tried to use it to demonize their political opponents. Within hours, a crowd gathered before the state office of John Tower, the first Republican senator elected from Texas since Reconstruction, and put a torch to it.
Some of them may have believed what they said about Republicans, conservatives and the people of Dallas, but others knew better. Eventually, even liberals had to admit that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a conservative, but an unbalanced, self-declared Marxist who had visited the Soviet Union and admired Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This knowledge did not, however, deter liberals from pointing the finger of blame at conservatives for “creating an atmosphere of hate” in which extremists such as Oswald might flourish.
Those who serve any president often see their years near the man in the White House as the best of their lives. The youthful vigor and glitz of the young president’s nearly three years in the White House were dubbed “Camelot” by those who served and admired him, and a decade later, many who flocked to town to work for Kennedy could be found in bars around Washington recounting tales of their glory days and bemoaning the fact that they had been cut short.
As the times changed, so did the popular image of John F. Kennedy. The liberalism of the early 1960s no longer exists, and the icon of the era has had to be redefined to fit a concept of what Kennedy should have represented, rather than what he said and did before Nov. 22, 1963.
The anti-communist warrior had campaigned against a “missile gap” that threatened our security, tried desperately to oust Castro, promised that his country would “bear any burden” in the international struggle for freedom, and dispatched some 14,000 advisers to Vietnam. Still, to liberals, he became a man who, had he survived Oswald’s bullet, would have kept us out of Vietnam and ushered in an era of peaceful relations with the communist world.
The president who cut taxes to stimulate the private economy morphed in their minds into a big-government liberal who would have loved Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and would today be cheering those liberals who now express disdain for free markets and want to regulate everything that moves. The president who only reluctantly and hesitatingly embraced the drive for civil rights is today remembered as its champion.
Today’s champions of civil liberties conveniently forget that President Kennedy’s brother Bobby oversaw his Justice Department and authorized wiretaps on those he saw as the president’s antagonists, encouraged FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to do the same and relished the information and gossip thus gathered.
Those who today suggest that the John F. Kennedy who ran in 1960, was sworn in as president and was so brutally assassinated less than three years later could not be nominated by today’s Democratic Party have a point. He was learning on the job, but brought energy and excitement to the presidency. It was a different world back then; Kennedy counted Barry Goldwater, his likely Republican rival for re-election, a friend, and both were looking forward to 1964 and even contemplated the possibility that they could travel the country together, disagreeing without being disagreeable.
It’s a shame because the man who was gunned down by a Marxist malcontent 50 years ago was a far more interesting president than the mythical liberal figure he has become in the decades since his death. The bullet that ended Kennedy’s life in Dallas was perhaps one of the first and strongest signs that the world of which he was a part was coming to an unwelcome end. It may not have been Camelot, but it beat the heck out of what we are going through today.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.