Who Didn’t Kill JFK?
The second wave of JFK books flooding the market this year concerns neither Oswald nor the assassination, but Kennedy himself. Many of these fall into the what-if school of history, in which historians and journalists attempt to project an alternative future from a muddy past. The baldest of these attempts is pundit Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived, a self-described “alternate history” of a two-term Kennedy presidency. Other authors take a more modest approach to thinking through their counterfactuals. Like the assassination theories, the core speculations about Kennedy have remained remarkably consistent over the years: Would he have saved the nation from the Vietnam War? Would he have fully championed the civil rights movement? Would he, finally, have been faithful to Jackie? The answers, of course, are even more unknowable than the truth about the assassination. But this seems unlikely to stop some from seeking them.
Kennedy was always a popular political figure—except, perhaps, during the 1960 election. He barely won the presidency, squeaking into office with 49.7 percent of the popular vote, to Richard Nixon’s 49.6. Once there, his popularity rose quickly, with an average approval rating of 70 percent. At the time of his assassination, his numbers had fallen somewhat in reaction to his endorsement of civil rights legislation. Today, we are inclined to narrate the civil rights struggle as a national morality tale, a story of citizens coming together to right a historical wrong. Kennedy’s stand was far more reluctant, and far more controversial. Many of his allies saw his civil rights pronouncement—accurately—as Democratic suicide in the white South, a problem his visit to Dallas was intended to correct.
This accident of timing has made it almost irresistible for authors to speculate about Kennedy’s future greatness: Would he have embodied the conscience that the nation needed in 1963? His youth and vaunted good looks have only further tempted writers to romanticize him. JFK was 43 when he was elected, 46 when he was killed. Jackie was 34 when she went to Dallas, mother to a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. These numbers are well known, but they seem to have retained rather than lost their pathos over the decades. By comparison, our own youthful president—52-year-old Barack Obama—seems almost like an elder statesman.
These factors—Kennedy’s youth and good looks, his tentative liberal awakening, his untimely death—probably made it inevitable that he would be remembered with affection and a deep sense of loss. Still, the sheer adulation reflected in recent polls is hard to explain. As historian Robert Dallek notes in his new book, Camelot’s Court, Kennedy regularly appears near the very top in popular rankings of American presidents; a 2010 Gallup poll put his approval rating at a whopping 85 percent. Among twentieth-century presidents, this places him not only above Ronald Reagan, the perennial conservative favorite, but also FDR, who served more than twelve years in the White House and guided the nation through depression and war. Kennedy served less than three years (his storied “One Thousand Days”). And while he managed to enact a tax cut and avert a nuclear war, he can hardly be described as one of the giants of political accomplishment. “I saw ample reason for enthusiasm about parts of his performance,” Dallek notes in the introduction to his book, “but 85 percent?”
This apparent disjuncture inspired Dallek to return to the Kennedy archives, searching for hints of real leadership and effective decision-making that would explain his revered status. One of the deans of presidential scholarship, Dallek made a splash in 2003 with An Unfinished Life, still the best biography of Kennedy. Camelot’s Court covers at least some of the same ground, depicting Kennedy as a man beset by crises—the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam—and often unsure what to do about them. The main players are Kennedy’s brash, young Ivy League–trained advisers: 34-year-old Harris Wofford, 29-year-old Richard Goodwin, 41-year-old McGeorge Bundy, 36-year-old Robert Kennedy. As a group, Dallek argues, these men gave Kennedy decidedly mixed advice, pulling him in multiple directions when he could not forge a direction of his own. Think The Best and the Brightest meets Team of Rivals.
Many of this year’s books strike a more hopeful and expansive note, imagining alternate futures in which Kennedy would have set America on a better course. In To Move the World, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs argues that Kennedy spent most of 1963 in pursuit of a “sustainable peace” with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. “Let us…learn and marvel at how Kennedy helped humanity to take one more step on the path of survival and human achievement,” he writes. Historian and journalist Thurston Clarke lauds JFK’s Last Hundred Days as a time of personal transformation, in which Kennedy allegedly put aside his playboy ways and cautious policies in the service of presidential greatness. Rather than ask “who killed him,” Clarke writes, we should all focus on that second “tantalizing mystery”: “who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.”
In the end, both Clarke and Sachs see what they want to see: a crusader for peace and justice, a son of privilege just “beginning to realize his potential as a man and a president.” But lest it be said that only liberals are subject to such wishful thinking, it is worth noting that conservatives, too, have put in their bids on Kennedy this year. The most straightforward title on offer is former New York Sun editor Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative, which depicts Kennedy as a great free-market-loving, tax-cutting Cold Warrior for the modern age. Stoll isn’t wrong, exactly: Kennedy was a liberal and a conservative, a Cold Warrior and a peacemaker, a cautious pragmatist who eventually embraced civil rights. Like his youth and beauty, these chameleon politics may help to explain his ongoing allure. In death, even more than in life, Kennedy seems to have the politician’s ability to be all things to all people.
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