JFK Revisited: Legacy in Perspective

President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (White House photo)
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November 12, 2013 - 6:30am

The presidency of John F. Kennedy is remembered for more than it’s tragic end 50 years ago. The NET News special reporting project “JFK Revisited” talks with Nebraska historians and political scientists about the Kennedy legacy, especially how we see and perceive the presidency.


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CBS anchor Walter Cronkite interviews Kennedy in 1963. (White House photo)

PHOTO GALLERY: Images of Kennedy and the Kennedy presidency.

 

VIDEO, Ted Sorensen: Watch extended segments of our 2003 interview with Nebraska native and former Kennedy aide/speech writer Ted Sorensen.

VIDEO, JFK Reflections: Watch participants in a UNL Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) class “JFK: A Half Century Later” share memories of Kennedy’s assassination.

VIDEO, Cattle Sale: What happened at a Nebraska cattle sale on the dale of the assassination; a video extra from the NET documentary, "Beef State."

Historians and political scientists say the legacy of Kennedy’s abbreviated term lasted longer than his less than three years in the White House. The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate is one example. It was broadcast live on radio and television. Radio listeners gave Nixon the edge; but Kennedy won with television viewers. A new era of media politics arrived.

“When they got done somebody who was counseling John F. Kennedy said, ‘I think we’ve just elected a President and I’m not sure this is the way we should do it,’” said Sara Crook, professor of history and social science at Peru State College.

Crook calls Kennedy the first media president, something that’s influenced the presidency since.

“I do think in today’s society you have to be telegenic to be electable and I’m not sure that’s necessarily a great criteria,” Crook said.

Kennedy benefited from being the right president for the dawn of the television era, according to John Vermeer, retired Nebraska Wesleyan University political science professor. Vermeer said Kennedy understood how to use this to his advantage.

“Kennedy was the first, really, to hold live televised press conferences,” Vermeer said. “There were televised press conferences under Eisenhower, but, if not scripted, questions had to be submitted in advance and there wasn’t a give and take. Kennedy did it live and we still expect presidents to do that live.

“We all expect presidents now to have a television image, television sense, an ability to connect with people through that medium and it was new at the time,” Vermeer added. “We still have those expectations.”

Vermeer said Kennedy’s assassination, only captured on film by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder, led to television cameras following future presidents at all times.

“When that happened, the intensity of personality of the person increased so much that it was harder to ignore the outside events,” Vermeer said.

As a result, in years that followed we’ve seen television coverage of everything from the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton stopping for a hamburger while jogging.

Meghan Winchell

Nebraska Wesleyan history professor Meghan Winchell said Kennedy changed the way we view the presidency.

“They started to see that the president can be young, vital, and inviting,” Winchell said. “I think that Kennedy became perhaps our first celebrity president. A president who had as much to do with Hollywood, and was appealing to the media in ways that Eisenhower really wasn’t, or Truman before Eisenhower."

Crook said Kennedy’s image, in combination with some issues of the time, helped bring new demographic groups into politics.

Sara Crook

“Getting more women involved and maybe setting the stage in many ways for young people to feel like they can make a change, that you don’t have to be 60 and bald to vote,” Crook said.

Kennedy also set the tone for presidents cultivating the media and controlling the agenda or message coming daily from the White House, according to Peru State history and social sciences professor Spencer Davis.

“It’s chaotic enough to be president when you know what’s on the daily agenda and you have a chance to get out ahead of it and sort of start off with your take on things,” Davis said. “To be blindsided by events as happens from time to time is bad enough but to not know on a daily basis what’s coming I think would make the presidency very hard. It’s such a job of impression and momentum and priorities and limited power, even within the executive branch, to really force things quickly you have to dominate the agenda. I think Kennedy did that with a special skill. Today that is probably one of the things a president needs to be able to do.”

Spencer Davis

Two of Kennedy’s most defining policy legacies are civil rights, starting the path toward the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and avoiding nuclear war though negotiations with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, then setting the stage of the end of the Cold War through negotiating a Nuclear Test Ban treaty.

“I think those were two big things,” Davis said. “It’s more promise than it was actual completed programs, but I think he set a course that was important.

I don’t think there’s an achievement that’s uniquely his. I think he gave a momentum and a wonderful icon to nuclear disarmament and civil rights."

“Kennedy was not vigorous on civil rights,” Winchell said. “Kennedy was most interested in getting elected and in getting re-elected, and he did not want to offend anyone. He believed in civil rights, but I believe that the civil rights movement came to his door. It’s really Lyndon Johnson that got the Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights Voting Act passed. Johnson capitalized on the horror of the Kennedy assassination. He used his tremendous political savvy to push those bills through Congress.”

In general, there’s a belief Kennedy’s political legacy was viewed more positively because it ended tragically. Vermeer called it the myth of Camelot.

John Vermeer

“We look back at it through rose colored glasses,” Vermeer said. “There were lots of problems that Kennedy had with the media. There were lots of problems Kennedy had with Congress. There were lots of decisions that he was waffling on; civil rights, Vietnam. He really didn’t take firm positions on those issues. But we tend to look back and see it as an idyllic time

“If I had to make a list of our greatest president, would I put Kennedy on that list? I don’t think that I would,” Winchell added. “I think that Kennedy was forward-thinking. He represented his time. He came up with some very creative proposals, but the assassination will forever affect the way Americans see his actions. I think also given the tragedies of the Johnson administration, when it comes to the Vietnam War, that it is much more comfortable for us to glorify Kennedy’s contributions to the civil rights movement than Johnson’s contributions.”

“Would he have been regarded as well if he had lived a full life? I would say, probably not,” Crook said. “Would he go down in history as a bad president? I still don’t think that. Of course, we don’t know what he would have done but I think when assassinated you’re automatically elevated and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You could make the same arguments with Lincoln, because he’s highly revered and yet there were a lot of people who were critical of him at the time, including his own party.”


Other JFK Revisited Stories

PBS Programs

  • American Experience, "JFK" - A fresh assessment of Kennedy and his legacy. Airs Nov. 11 and 12 at 9 p.m. CT on NET1
  • NOVA, "Cold Case JFK" - Can modern forensic science uncover fresh clues about the assassination of JFK? Airs Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. CT on NET1.

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