Still, the era’s written history may not do full justice to Kennedy’s appeal, especially as his positive attributes are offset by the later learned details of a personal life that might not pass political muster today.
Kennedy’s election was a political trailblazer, and not just because he was the first Catholic president. A World War II hero, he was the first of seven from what became known as the Greatest Generation.
In those days, primaries were few, and the power to pick the convention delegates who determined the nominees lay with governors, senators and party bosses. Kennedy’s victories over more liberal rival Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries convinced Democratic Party leaders to back him, despite his religion.
His triumph helped transfer the presidential selection power from fellow pols to the voters, often influenced by candidates’ television skills or various campaign trivialities, rather than their governing abilities.
Like other such dramatic events, Kennedy’s assassination changed the flow of history, though we can only speculate how. It brought to the presidency Lyndon Johnson, whose unappealing television persona made him unlikely to win on his own.
Taking advantage of what became an inevitable landslide a year later, Johnson and a Democratic Congress enacted more groundbreaking federal programs than any president but Franklin D. Roosevelt: Medicare, Medicaid, federal education aid, landmark civil rights laws and a tax cut that propelled a decade of economic growth.
At the same time, he planted the seeds of his political demise by vastly increasing the American military presence in Vietnam, from 16,300 advisers at Kennedy’s death to 536,000 mostly combat troops in 1968, all ultimately for naught.
Kennedy, more cautious, might have achieved less of Johnson’s domestic agenda. As for Vietnam, his top aides, many of whom I interviewed 20 years after his death, disagreed.
Ted Sorensen, Mike Feldman and Larry O’Brien all told me they believed that, after the 1964 election, Kennedy would have found a way to extricate the United States.
Others disagreed. “I have great doubt that he would have done anything different than Johnson did,” said former Undersecretary of State George Ball, who served under both and became an outspoken war critic. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War and subsequent urban disorders cut short a potential Democratic era, precipitating the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. That launched a string of five GOP victories in six elections.
Because Kennedy’s presidency was so short — just over 1,000 days — it’s often seen as one more of promise than achievement. But he laid the basis for Johnson’s domestic successes, and his dramatic rebuff of the Soviet effort to put offensive missiles in Cuba and groundbreaking nuclear test ban made the world safer.
Beyond that, he inspired a generation of Americans to become involved politically, an impact still being felt three decades later when one of them, Bill Clinton, ended that long Republican political era.
The immediate impact of that weekend was epitomized in a televised exchange between two Kennedy enthusiasts.
“We’ll never laugh again,” columnist Mary McGrory told Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future U.S. senator.
“Mary,” Moynihan replied, “we’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.”