It was fifty years ago that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The inevitable conspiracy theorists have argued yet again their notions of how Kennedy was killed—who and how many shooters shot from where, and who was behind the equally inevitable conspiracies. (The least believed explanation seems to be the Warren Report’s assertation that a scrawny, attention-seeking megalomaniac killed the most-powerful man in the free world from a warehouse) Now, this sad anniversary has passed. The various media have presented their various special editions and programs.
Inevitably, some conversation carries on. What Americans seem to mourn most deeply—even after these five decades—is the death of Camelot, the sense of optimism and rebirth the nation felt during John F. Kennedy’s one-thousand day reign.
Indeed, there was an incontrovertible change in the presidency when JFK took the oath of office. Kennedy was the youngest elected president at the time, and he replaced the oldest president to that date—Dwight David Eisenhower. John Kennedy was married to the beautiful and glamorous Jacqueline. The couple had two adorable children running around the White House, imbuing it with a freshness and vitality that old building hadn’t seen in years.
However, the country lost more than a charming man and able leader that Dallas afternoon. It lost the most eloquent president we’d heard in years. His inaugural address was a masterpiece—look it up online; it was powerful—and it provided a call to arms for Americans, a challenge to be better citizens, both of the world and our own nation. This was at the height of The Cold War, and Kennedy struck the perfect balance of signaling to the Soviet Union that we were a peaceful nation, who would not hesitate to fight if we—or our hemisphere’s allies—were to be attacked.
JFK’s speeches were intelligent and adroitly worded, but they also contained some powerful messages that hold true even today, messages that every president since John Kennedy was assassinated borrowed from.
Larry J. Sabato’s new book, “The Kennedy Half-Century” traces how subsequent presidents have borrowed from JFK’s speeches and ideas, some much more than others. To be sure, President Kennedy combined some ideas previously expressed. The beauty of his speeches, though, was how they were assembled, and how eloquently they were delivered.
Think about presidential eloquence since FDR: neither Presidents Truman nor Eisenhower were comfortable with TV cameras, nor did either blow people away. John Kennedy was the first true television president. He looked comfortable and in control, even during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He could ad lib, and get laughs (e.g., his comment about how he’d be known as the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris), without sacrificing gravitas. He was smooth, yet smart.
Look at the charm and eloquence of those presidents who followed him: Lyndon Johnson? No. Richard Nixon, with his sheen of sweat and perpetual five o’clock shadow? No. Gerald Ford? Not really. Jimmy Carter? He had a sort of charming novelty—hey, look! A peanut farmer in the White House—but he wasn’t on the same level.
Ronald Reagan could deliver a speech. Some of his lines—Mr. Gorbachev, Tear. Down. This. Wall!—were spot-on. Bill Clinton had his moments, too, but his eloquence gets lost in his denials of wrongdoing. The guy after Clinton should have his picture in the dictionary next to the word “malapropism.” I’ve heard our current president deliver some speeches with confidence and aplomb.
What Larry Sabato does, though, is not critique the various presidents’s technique, but note just how much they borrowed from John Kennedy’s ideas. That’s the “Kennedy Half-Century.” The man died fifty years ago, but his ideas never have. His body of work is like a buffet, where subsequent presidents pick a little of this speech, a dollop of that, and—sometimes—try to hide John F. Kennedy’s ideas beneath a sheen of their own tepid, ineloquent gravy.
I won’t go into which president used what ideas—that is Larry Sabato’s job, and one he accomplishes masterfully. I will say only that I was surprised at who borrowed the most and who borrowed the least.
Sabato provides plenty of examples, and adds yet another dimension to JFK’s legacy, something that seemed to be impossible.
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)