What would Jack do?

    JFK was assassinated 48 years ago today, but you’d be hard pressed to find a mention in the media. This is not surprising. Unlike, say, the Irish, who are still on intimate terms with the Battle of the Boyne (1690), many Americans dismiss their history as a distant land dead and gone.

    Year by year, JFK’s New Frontiersmen die off; sooner rather than later, only the baby boomers will be left alive to recall that shocking Friday. Shocking, yes, because his slaying came at a time when America seemed invincible. That’s how it hit me that day, as I sat in a little-kid math class, listening to the school principal intone, on the public address system, “This is an all-call, this is an all-call. The president of the United States has been attacked and shot” – and I don’t recall the rest, because I was looking over at my friend Sue Ann, whose moist eyes were suddenly twice the size of the 50-cent coins that would soon be adorned with JFK’s face. Our teacher, Miss Marshall, told us to sit mute for the rest of the class period, and so, for the ensuing 30 minutes, it was silent enough to hear us breathe. I bring this up not to wallow in perverse nostalgia, but to examine how Kennedy’s premature passing has shaped our ever-shifting perceptions of his presidency, and how those who recall him still deem him to be a relevant political topic – as in WWJD (what would Jack do?).At first, the posthumous Kennedy was hailed as a God; as I well recall, the winter of 1963-4 was one long grief session, complete with pop dirges on AM radio (Connie Francis: “A young man rode with his head held high/ Under the Texas sun…”). Then came a revisionist phase in the mid-1970s, when congressional investigators revealed the slimy underside of his tenure (most notably, plotting in secret to whack Castro, and sleeping for several years with a Mafia mobster’s moll). The result, today, is a complicated legacy. Kennedy is both lionized and condemned. He is mourned for all the good he could have done had he lived, and dissed for all the dirty things he did. Many Americans, or at least those old enough to remember, seem to have reconciled themselves to the view that he was both inspirational (he scores high in the poll rankings of past presidents) and unscrupulous (he got away with stuff that would be tweeted today). Sometimes he seems courageous (the ’62 Cuban missile showdown), and sometimes he seems timid (he dragged his feet on civil rights). He ushered in the modern imperial presidency with his medium-cool image, yet his domestic agenda was thwarted by a recalcitrant Congress led by conservative southerners.These dissonant impressions came to mind the other night while I was watching Bill Maher’s HBO show. It featured a spirited clash between Kennedy hagiographer Chris Matthews (whose new JFK book was timed for the assassination anniversary season) and blogger-columnist-contrarian Andrew Sullivan. They were debating what we should do about Iran’s nuclear program, and, inevitably, Matthews volunteered his take on what JFK would have done about Iran. That’s when the festivities began.Matthews contended that, because Kennedy had stood up to the hawkish “jackasses” who wanted us to bomb Cuba during the missile crisis, he would similarly be arguing today that it’s nuts to bomb Iran. Matthews thundered that, back in ’62, Kennedy “saved the world!”But Sullivan scoffed, “Kennedy was the most hawkish of the most hawkish of the most Cold War warriors imaginable! He ran a (1960) campaign inventing a missile gap (with the Soviets) so that he could attack Richard Nixon (from the right)!”As Sullivan rattled on, arguing that Kennedy had helped trigger the Soviet nuclear missile moves in Cuba by previously placing American missiles in Turkey, Matthews looked as if someone had sprayed graffiti on the stained glass windows of his church. His glower got worse when Sullivan demanded, “Kennedy nearly blew the whole world up!””He did the job if saving the planet! He saved the planet, Andrew!””Don’t demagogue me!””No, it’s thoughtful inquiry!”Sullivan was undeterred: “He would sound like these Republicans today! If you think Jack Kennedy would not be urging war on Iran, you’re crazy!””Andrew, in the entire presidency of John F. Kennedy, he never committed one combat troop to action! Not once! Not once!..I”m so proud of this president of ours!” (Matthews apparently forgot the Green Berets, who went to Vietnam.)”He was a hawk who was to the right of Nixon!”Soon they were battling about Kennedy and civil rights. “Who sent the federal troops against (racist governor) Ross Barnett in Mississippi?” boomed Matthews. “Who went (to Alabama) and took on George Wallace?””Only when he had to! He was not a leader!”And so on. The spat was not resolved, of course, because it can never be. Kennedy’s truncated tenure is frozen in time, forever grist for debate. And there’s no point in arguing what Good Jack or Bad Jack would do today, because if he were president in our current political culture, he’d probably be spending innumerable man hours defending his exposed seamy side and fending off impeachment. Or maybe that’s just my shattered innocence talking, 48 years to the day after it was snatched away.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.