Many presidents have had their terms cut tragically short. So what is it about the thirty-fifth president that attracts so much more mourning?
Fifty years after the murder of President John F. Kennedy, the event is scarcely less shocking and saddening than it was in its immediate aftermath. It must rank with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as the most graphically shocking and horrifying memory in the minds of the hundreds of millions of people who remember that day. The reason it is such a vivid memory is not just that it was the murder of a president; the United States had endured that three times before, though not in the electronic age, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was a greater tragedy for the country, in terms both of the greatness of the deceased president and in what could legitimately be expected of him had he finished his term.
In the cases of Lincoln, James A. Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901, the assassinations were vividly sketched and described, and the country was profoundly shocked in every case, but the endless televised reruns of the motorcade in Dallas, the solicitude of Mrs. Kennedy, and then the horror within the presidential car and on the roadside when it was clear that a terrible wound had been sustained, is a ghastly and indelible recollection to everyone, in a way that a drawing, however skilfully executed, cannot be. (Contemporary sketches of Lincoln being shot in the head at point blank range in his box at the theatre beside his wife, were, and remain, very chilling.) And though President Kennedy was not a gigantic statesman who had saved the Union, emancipated the slaves, and seen the country through a horrible war in which more Americans died than in all other American wars until then combined, he was only forty-six and was not three years into his presidency. Lincoln announced that he was ”an old man” in his famous leave-taking at Springfield in 1861 as he went to his inauguration “not knowing when or whether ever I may return,” though he was only fifty-two. It was a century earlier and Lincoln had led a hard life. And he was departing his home to assume the headship of a country that was already in the deepest crisis in its history, with states seceding preemptively by the week.
The greatest contrast with previous analogous tragedies in American history was that JFK was glamorous; he was a star. Abraham Lincoln, for all his greatness, and partly because of it, was not glamorous, and certainly his harridanly and somewhat maladjusted wife was not glamorous. John F. Kennedy was a fair and tousle-haired, intelligently ingenuous, stylish scion of a wealthy family. It was an altogether different appeal from that of the craggy product of the log cabin and the rail-splitting youth and itinerant frontier lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. Jacqueline Kennedy was only thirty-four when her husband was murdered, and was an elegant, trilingual, stylishly dressed and refined woman.
Garfield had been a university head in his twenties (Western Reserve), and a distinguished combat citizen general in the Civil War, and was the only person ever to make the jump directly from congressman to president (though he had already been elected senator but not installed), but he was not glamorous, and glamor was not in 1880 what it was in the 1960s.
William McKinley had had a good war as a middle officer, and the war with Spain was a walkover. He was a journeyman senator and a solid plough-horse, but he was in no sense glamorous.
Of presidents who died in office, the closest in some respects to President Kennedy was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a great star; at least lived in the era of films, newsreels, and glossy magazines; and who captured and held the imagination of the nation and the world in a way that Kennedy consciously tried to replicate, down to the smiling countenance and the identification by his three initials. But FDR, though only sixty-three when he died, passed on from a stroke in his great office in his fourth term, was seventeen years older than JFK and cannot be claimed to have died entirely prematurely. The deaths of FDR and JFK provoked the two greatest outbreaks of public grief in the nation’s history, apart from the death of Lincoln. Two million people stood silently beside the track at all hours of the day and night, as the funeral train bore the casket of President Roosevelt back from Warm Springs, Georgia to Washington, and on to his ancestral home at Hyde Park, New York.
The shocking televised record of President Kennedy’s murder and the premature demise of this popular and attractive young leader have made it such a timeless tragedy, a piercing wound to the world’s conscience and sensibilities that does not much heal or abate; not his actual performance in office. As president, he followed and concluded what must in hindsight be considered the golden age of the U.S. presidency, through the distinguished incumbencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The accomplishments of those leaders, taking the country out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II, and through the worst phase of the Cold War, founding NATO and creating the Marshall Plan, defending Korea, and proposing Atoms for Peace and Open Skies, and delivering a peaceful and prosperous America beginning to desegregate to the young President Kennedy, were probably the greatest sustained period of presidential accomplishment in the history of the office.
John F. Kennedy moved it forward a whole generation (his three predecessors were born between 1882 and 1890), but apart from the appearance of vigor (which disguised severe medical problems and excessive medication, not to dwell upon apparent satyriasis), his record in office was thin and composed more of promise than fact. JFK came late to the correct conclusion on civil rights and taxes, but couldn’t move them legislatively, and it was his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who got those measures adopted. He probably deserves the benefit of the doubt that he would not have made such a terrible mess of Vietnam as his successor did; would have avoided it, or if he had intervened directly, would have followed the advice of Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and other serious military experts and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As it is, the chief responsibility for turning Laos into a superhighway of North Vietnamese infiltration of the South resides with Kennedy for the Laos Neutrality Agreement—which Richard Nixon, who may well have been the real winner of the 1960 election, and has received minimal credit for not contesting it and consequently immobilizing the country—called “Communism on the installment plan.” Kennedy did sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but most of the preparatory work was done by Eisenhower. His great triumph is commonly held to be the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and he does deserve much credit for distrusting blase military and intelligence assurances of an easy invasion option, when there were in fact short-range nuclear warheads and two Soviet divisions already in-country. But before the crisis, there were NATO missiles in Greece and Turkey and no Soviet missiles in Cuba and no guarantee by the U.S. of non-invasion of Cuba. At the end of the crisis, there were no missiles in Greece and Turkey (contrary to the wishes of those countries), or Cuba, and the U.S. had undertaken not to invade Cuba. It was prudent management, but as Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon pointed out, it was no American strategic victory.
John F. Kennedy was probably an above-average president, and might have been a very talented two-term president, but that is rank conjecture. All the bunk about Camelot (a musical he didn’t even enjoy) has burnished a rather humdrum record, but he will always remain an admired and lamented man, whose life and death were an evanescent source of encouragement, and a permanent tragedy.
Conrad Black is a writer and former newspaper publisher whose most recent book is Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership (Encounter Books, 2013). He is chairman emeritus of The National Interest.