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J.F.K. After 20 years, the question: How good a President?

27 minute read
Lance Morrow

After 20 years, the question: How good a President?

In an essay on Napoleon, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “He was no saint—to use his word, ‘no capuchin,’ and he is no hero, in the high sense.” Napoleon had fulfilled an earthly career, at any rate. His life went the full trajectory. One could study the line of it and know, for better and worse, what the man was, and did, and could do. He inhabited his life. He completed it. He passed through it to the end of its possibilities.

John Kennedy’s bright trajectory ended in midpassage, severed in that glaring Friday noontime in Dallas. The moment 20 years ago when one learned the news became precisely fixed in the memory, the mind stopping like a clock just then. It is Kennedy’s deathday, not his birthday, that we observe. History abruptly left off, and after the shock had begun to pass, the mythmaking began—the mind haunted by the hypothetical, by what might have been.

And the myth overwhelmed conventional judgment, as if some wonderful song prevented the hall from hearing the recording secretary read the minutes of the last meeting, or the minutes of a thousand days. Today, Kennedy still occupies an unusual place in the national psyche. His presence there in the memory, in the interior temple, remains powerful, disproportionate to his substantive accomplishments. He probably was not President long enough to be judged by the customary standards.

Kennedy had his obvious accomplishments. Merely by arriving at the White House, he had destroyed forever one religious issue in American politics. When Edmund Muskie ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, his Catholicism was only a minor biographical detail. Kennedy presided over a change of political generations in America, and did it with brilliant style. He brought youth and idealism and accomplishment and elan and a sometimes boorish and clannish elitism to Washington. He refreshed the town with a conviction that the world could be changed, that the improvisational intelligence could do wonderful things. Such almost ruthless optimism had its sinister side, a moral complacency and dismissive arrogance that expressed itself when the American elan went venturing into Viet Nam. But Kennedy, when he died, was also veering away from the cold war. He made an eloquently conciliatory speech at American University in June 1963, and he accomplished the limited test-ban treaty. He had many plans, for Medicare, for civil rights, for other projects.

But after Nov. 22, the record simply went blank. An anguished and fascinating process of canonization ensued. The television networks focused their gaze on the story almost continuously from Parkland Memorial Hospital to Arlington National Cemetery, as if in professional tribute to the first President who understood the medium and performed perfectly in it. In sanctifying his memory, videotape became Kennedy’s Parson Weems. The reality of what the nation had lost was preserved with unprecedented, unthinkable vividness: his holographic ghost moving and talking inside every television set, that American dreamboat campaigning through the primaries among leaping and squealing adolescent girls, the snow-dazzled Inaugural ceremony, the wonderfully witty press conferences replayed endlessly, the children, the family, the one brief shining moment shown shining again and again in counterpoint with the Book Depository and the shots, and riderless Black Jack fighting the bridle, and the widow, the little boy saluting, and the long mahogany box in the Rotunda—the protagonist and the irretrievable mystery of the piece. The death of John F. Kennedy became a participatory American tragedy, a drama both global and intensely intimate.

The event eerily fused, for a moment, the normally dissociated dimensions of public life and private life. And so Americans felt Kennedy’s death in a deeply personal way: they, and he, were swept into a third dimension, the mythic. The ancient Greeks thought that gods and goddesses came down and walked among them and befriended them or betrayed them. The drama 20 years ago—bright young life and light and grace and death all compounded by the bardic camera—turned Kennedy into a kind of American god.

In any case, for a long time, some thought forever, it seemed almost impossible to look objectively at the man and his presidency, to see what he had done and left undone. Not long after the assassination, Journalist Gerald W. Johnson wrote, “Already it has happened to two of the 35 men who have held the presidency, rendering them incapable of analysis by the instruments of scholarship; and now Washington, the godlike, and Lincoln, the saintly, have been joined by Kennedy, the young chevalier.”

Ronald Reagan has been in the office almost as long as Kennedy. It is fascinating, though complicated, that the youngest elected President, who occupied the White House for the shortest (elected) term since Warren Harding—and who had a problematic tenure, very much a learning process and a mixed bag of one fiasco and many missteps and some accomplishments—should be thus elevated, by the force of his presence, his vivid charm, to the company of the greatest Presidents, as if the inspirational power of personality were enough for greatness. Perhaps it is. Many Americans make the association. Yet what sways them is in some sense the strange coercive power of the martyr, Kennedy’s great vitality turned inside out. He came to have a higher reputation in death than he enjoyed in life. And in a bizarre way he even accomplished more in death than in life. In the atmosphere of grief and remorse after the assassination, Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress much of Kennedy’s program, and more: Medicare, civil rights and the other bills that came to form Johnson’s Great Society.

Three million visitors still come to his grave at Arlington every year. Although fewer photographs of Kennedy are enshrined in bars and barbershops and living rooms around the U.S. than there once were, they can still be found in huts all over the Third World: an image of an American President, dead for 20 years, a symbol—but of what exactly? Mostly of a kind of hope, the possibility of change, and the usually unthinkable idea that government leadership might intercede to do people some good.

Is it possible now, at a remove of 20 years, to detach Kennedy’s presidency from the magic and to judge it with the cold rationality that Kennedy tried to bring to bear upon his world? Or is the myth, the sense of hope and the lift he gave thereby, a central accomplishment of his presidency? W.B. Yeats wrote, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Kennedy would have found the solemnity and mythmaking amusing, and hopelessly overdone. His intellectual style was sardonic and self-aware: wonderful lights of satire played across it. If he sometimes labored hard at being a hero, or seeming a hero (before his election in 1960, he listened intently to recordings of Winston Churchill’s speeches, picking up the grand rhythms of the language), he knew the limitations of everything, including himself. His instruments were sensitive to the bogus. He might even have had some mordant crack to make about that Eternal Flame.

As the years have passed, Kennedy has been inevitably caught up in the pattern of idolatry and revisionism. All presidential reputations ride up or down upon wind currents of intellectual fashion and subsequent history, the perspective of the present constantly altering interpretations of the past.

First the murdered President became saint and martyr. But then the ’60s arrived in earnest. In a study of tragedy, Critic George Steiner wrote, “The fall of great personages from high places (casus virorum illustrium) gave to medieval politics their festive and brutal character.” The real ’60s began on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, and they turned festive and brutal too. It came to seem that Kennedy’s murder opened some malign trap door in American culture, and the wild bats flapped out. His assassination became the prototype in a series of public murders: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy. His death prefigured all the deaths of the young in Viet Nam.

The ’60s eventually turned on Kennedy. The protests and violent changes of the time jarred loose and shattered fundamental premises of American life and power. From the perspective of Viet Nam in the late ’60s, some of Kennedy’s rhetoric sounded incautious, jingoistic and dangerous. The Arthurian knight talked about building bomb shelters. The extravagance of all that the hagiologists claimed for him now seemed to make him a fraud. His performance on civil rights came to seem tepid and reluctant and excessively political. Stories about his vigorous sex life, including an alleged affair with the girlfriend of a Mafia don, brought into question not only his private morals but his common sense. At last, the revisionists wondered whether his presidency belonged more to the history of publicity and hype than to the history of political leadership.

Presidential reputations are always fluid. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was regarded during the ’60s as a somewhat vague golfer with a tendency to blunder into sand traps when attempting a complicated English sentence. Now he is enjoying a rehabilitation. His watch was essentially peaceful and prudent, his revisionists say.

At the end of his terms, though, Ike seemed archaic and gray. The virile young man in top hat who rode with him down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961 had promised to “get the country moving again.” That bright Inauguration Day, Kennedy brought Robert Frost to read a special poem for the occasion. The glare of sun on new-fallen snow bunded the aged poet, and so he recited another poem from memory. The poem he did not read that day contained these lines for the Kennedy era:

It makes the prophet in us all presage

The glory of a next Augustan age

Of a power leading from its strength and pride,

Of young ambition eager to be tried,

Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,

In any game the nations want to play.

A golden age of poetry and power

Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

Frost had caught just the spirit of the venture, with a confidence about the uses of power and ambition that now seems amazing. Kennedy took office with extraordinary energy and the highest hopes. He seemed in some ways the perfect American. As Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin points out, he exemplified two usually contradictory strains in American tradition. One is the immigrant experience, the old American story of the luckless or disfavored or dispossessed who came from Europe and struggled in the New World. Rooted in that experience is the glorification of the common man and the desire for a common-man presidency, a celebration of the ordinary. The other strain is the American longing for an aristocracy, the buried dynastic, monarchical urge. “Jack is the first Irish Brahmin,” said Paul Dever, a former Massachusetts Governor. He had both Harvard and Honey Fitz in him. He was an intellectual who could devastate any woman in the room and devour Melbourne in a speed reader’s blitz and curse like the sailor that he also was.

Kennedy’s critics sometimes wondered whether he was animated by a larger, substantive vision of what he would like America to become, or simply by a substantive vision of what he wanted Jack Kennedy to become. His rhetoric was full of verbs of motion and change, but his idea of what America ought to be—other than wanting it to be an excellent place in all ways, not a bad vision to entertain—was often murky, crisscrossed by his own ambivalent impulses. When Kennedy came to the White House, his main previous administrative experience was running a PT boat. He had a great deal to learn.

One New Frontiersman who became a minor patron saint of the Kennedy revisionists was Chester Bowles, the career diplomat. He thought that he had located a central problem with the Kennedy Administration. He feared that it deliberately, almost scornfully, detached pragmatic considerations from a larger moral context. To discuss the morality of actions was evidence of softness, and intellectuals with power in their hands cannot bear to be thought soft. Everyone carried the Munich model around in his head. One talked in laconic codes, a masculine shorthand; one did not, like Adlai Stevenson, deliver fluty soliloquies about the morality of an act. After the Bay of Pigs, Bowles wrote: “The Cuban fiasco demonstrates how far astray a man as brilliant and well-intentioned as President Kennedy can go who lacks a basic moral reference point.”

Kennedy’s Inaugural Address bristled with a certain amount of cold war rhetoric, tricked up in reversible-raincoat prose (“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”).

To a nation reading it from the far side of the Viet Nam War, the most alarming passage was the one in which Kennedy promised to “pay any price … to assure the survival … of liberty.” The revisionists have always seen that line as a precis of the mentality that brought on the war. But both Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen reject the notion that the Inaugural speech was a prelude to cowboy interventionism. “It was,” says Schlesinger, “in part an overreaction to a speech two weeks earlier by Khrushchev that was read in Washington as being very truculent.” Sorensen, who drafted the text, insists, “The speech isn’t as bellicose as the revisionists have made it. It was really a call to negotiation. But he knew you didn’t get there with just appeals to the other side’s good will.”

One of the central dramas of the brief Kennedy Administration was his passage from a sometimes indiscriminate anti-Communist hard line to a deepening awareness of the real dangers of nuclear war. It did not help Kennedy in this passage that he assembled a staff of war-hawk anti-Communist intellectuals (McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Robert McNamara, for example) who were brilliantly nimble and self-confident and often disastrously wrong about what counted most. They could be overbearing men, and curiously disconnected from the realities of American life. Once, after Vice President Johnson talked wonderingly of all the brilliant characters Kennedy had brought into the White House, House Speaker Sam Rayburn remarked to him, “Well, Lyndon, they may be just as intelligent as you say. But I’d feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.”

Kennedy’s team of White House men, according to Historian Joan Hoff-Wilson, began the pattern in which Congress and the federal bureaucracies became adversaries of the White House rather than partners. “That kind of privatization and centralization of power in and around the White House clearly begins with Kennedy,” says Hoff-Wilson. For men who put such a premium on brains and information, the elite around Kennedy sometimes seemed either exceptionally naive (about the Bay of Pigs, for example) or ignorant (about Vietnamese history and culture). Some of the same men stayed on with Johnson, and presided over the escalation of what became in some ways the nation’s hardest war.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco, however, came early. Kennedy had inherited the plan from the Eisenhower Administration, which, according to Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, had already sunk $40 million into the training of a band of Cuban exiles who were supposed to sweep ashore in Cuba, join forces with the grateful, disenchanted islanders and dislodge Fidel Castro. Kennedy was skeptical of the idea, but allowed himself to be talked into it by men who seemed so sure of what they were doing. The mission, of course, was an utter disaster, and it taught Kennedy several important lessons. One was that truculently self-confident experts, such as generals and CIA men, can be ludicrously wrong. After the Bay of Pigs, according to his special counsel, Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy came to mistrust military solutions.

The botched invasion also revealed an attractive trait in Kennedy: an openness and candor, and a freedom from that neurotic, squirming evasiveness, the deflected gaze or outright mendacity, that one came to expect from one or two subsequent occupants of the White House. Kennedy made no effort to escape blame for the folly, to cover it up or excuse it. We made a terrible mistake, he said. Let’s go on from here.

As an administrator, Kennedy was intense, but also casual about the forms—improvisational, never rigid. Eisenhower favored a formal chain of command, with orderly, predictable structures. Kennedy’s mind was extremely orderly, but his techniques in office were sometimes heterodox and unexpected. They might have struck an outsider as being somewhat chaotic. He constantly bypassed the chain of command. He telephoned Assistant Secretaries or lesser military officers in order to seek information he needed. His press secretary, Pierre Salinger, once remarked that the back door of the White House always seemed more open than the front door. He understood the dynamics of meetings, and sometimes mistrusted them as a way of doing business. He thought that his presence might intimidate people. He liked to get information orally, in small groups or one-to-one, or else in memos from those people he trusted and admired—his brother Bobby and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., for example, or John Kenneth Galbraith, whose elegantly intelligent reports he always enjoyed reading. Kennedy detested long, tiresome memos from the bureaucracy. He complained that the functionaries at the State Department were incapable of getting to the point, to the essence, in their reports.

He did not keep rigid office hours. If he wanted to take a little more time in the morning to play with Caroline in the family quarters of the White House, he did so. He had a sort of seigneurial ease about the day’s routines. When he went for a swim, when he had people to dinner, when he went away for weekends at Hyannis Port, the world he thought about and tried to control was always there with him. It also kept him up late on many nights.

Kennedy’s tenure was littered with messy crises—in Laos, Cuba, the Congo, Latin America, Algeria, Viet Nam and Berlin—and his record in dealing with them is decidedly uneven. Revisionists like to say that Kennedy was a cold warrior who sought confrontation, but in the early ’60s, the Soviets busied themselves around the world in ways that no American President could ignore.

Too quickly after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy went to Vienna for a summit with Nikita Khrushchev, who, judging Kennedy to be callow and inexperienced, ranted and bullied. Khrushchev followed the meeting by building the Berlin Wall and then, within a month, interrupting the informal moratorium on nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

Kennedy’s strategy in world affairs was a mixture of gestures. The founder of the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, those aggressively idealistic enterprises, could be by turns imperial, bold and assertive, and restrained. He learned eventually to define American interests and hold firmly to the line he had drawn, as he did in the Berlin crisis and, most notably, in the Cuban missile crisis. The Bay of Pigs had taught him caution and the exploration of options.

The missile crisis, more than any other single event of his presidency, demonstrated the way in which Kennedy matured in the office, the way in which he could master complexities of process, could orchestrate alternatives. He had learned to wait and to question. The Bay of Pigs had instructed him to rely more on his own internal deliberations and less on the hormonal instincts of his military and intelligence advisers. During those 13 days in October 1962, the world held its breath; it waited in a real sweat of nuclear panic. Never, before or since, has global annihilation seemed a more immediate possibility. Kennedy rejected the idea of direct strikes against the offensive missile sites that the Soviets were installing in Cuba. Working in the extraordinary partnership that he had developed with his brother Bobby, the President imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba and allowed Khrushchev time to consider. When the Soviets sent two somewhat contradictory replies to his ultimatum, one hard and one more accommodating, Kennedy simply ignored the hard message and replied to the softer one. It worked. Khrushchev blinked, and in the memorable denouement, the Soviet ships turned and steamed away from Cuba. Says Harvard Political Scientist Richard Neustadt: “The Administration set a new standard of prudence in dealing with the Soviet Union. The standard of prudence, the hard thought given about the crisis as the Soviets would see it, thus giving our opponent as much room as possible—these were a model of presidential conduct.”

But there were deep contradictions in Kennedy’s foreign policy, conflicts in which an old view of the world and an emerging view competed with each other. Part of him retained the mentality of the cold war, a kind of Dulles-like brinkmanship. At the same time, a succession of crises convinced him that a new course was necessary. At American University he declared, “What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave … not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time … Let us re-examine our attitude toward the cold war, remembering that we are not engaged in a debate . .. We must deal with the world as it is.” It was the American University speech that began the long process of detente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Ironically, the man who brought Kennedy’s policy to its fullest bloom was Richard Nixon.

And yet Kennedy would ask for nearly 1,000 new ICBMS for the American nuclear arsenal, which eventually triggered what has become the greatest arms race in history. He acquiesced in the overthrow of the Diem government in South Viet Nam in 1963. And he ordered 16,000 American troops into that country.

Would Kennedy have become involved in Viet Nam to the extent that Johnson eventually did? The answer is unknowable. Many Kennedy loyalists think not, though their opinion is not disinterested. They point out that Kennedy was eminently a pragmatist; he would have seen the morass that lay in wait. Kennedy was a superbly self-assured man. He had already proved himself in war and had no need to do so again. With his keen sense of public relations, his loyalists believe, with his knowledge of the uses of the media, he would simply have decided that Viet Nam was not worth the dreadful publicity, which is not a very principled notion to put hypothetically into Kennedy’s mind, but still a plausible one.

At home, as abroad, Kennedy’s performance was mixed. He was a fiscal conservative. The economy was robust during his thousand days. Economic growth averaged 5.6% annually. Unemployment came down by almost two percentage points from the nearly 8% level when he took office. Inflation held at a prelapsarian 1.2%.

The central problem was confrontation between blacks and whites. Kennedy’s approach to civil rights at the beginning of his term was slow and inattentive. Writes Schlesinger in the current New Republic: “If anyone had asked Kennedy in 1960 how he really felt about civil rights, he might have answered something like this: ‘Yes, of course, we must achieve racial justice in this country, and we will; but it is an explosive question, so let us go about it prudently.’ Like most other white politicians, he underestimated the moral passion behind the movement. The protests of the Freedom Riders on the eve of his departure for the 1961 meeting with Khrushchev irritated him.”

He appointed some Southern judges who proved to be outright racists. But the civil rights movement was becoming an urgent presence in the nation; it demanded Kennedy’s attention. He was not a leader on this subject, not for a long time, but was led by events and historical pressures and by figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

The South was filled with agitation and change. There were riots at the all-white University of Mississippi when a black man named James Meredith tried to enroll. Two people were killed. Kennedy was forced to call out federal troops to install Meredith in the university. In Birmingham, Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus Eugene (“Bull”) Connor turned loose police dogs upon a march led by King. The news photographs of that spectacle—the fire hoses and the snapping dogs and the beefy Southern lawmen—outraged Americans and turned the public mood. In the spring of 1963 there were 2,000 civil rights demonstrations in more than 300 cities. Kennedy now faced the civil rights cause directly. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” Eight days later he sent Congress a civil rights bill that would assure equal access to public accommodations and fight discrimination in schools and jobs and at the polls.

But as in foreign policy, Kennedy’s performance was somehow deflected, inconsistent. While pronouncing civil rights to be a moral issue, he acquiesced in an FBI investigation of King. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, for decades the lord of his own almost independent principality within the American Government, said that King was associating with Communists. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, then Attorney General, allowed the wiretaps of King 1) to clear King’s name and thus disarm Hoover, 2) to see for themselves whether Hoover’s suspicions were correct, or 3) both. They did not, however, authorize the bugging that amounted to a much broader invasion of King’s privacy.

Kennedy died before his civil rights bill could become law.

His relations with Congress were not good, one of his failures as a leader. His program also suffered because he lacked a working majority on the Hill. Eventually President Johnson, that consummate creature of the Congress, obtained a comfortably functional Democratic majority in 1964. Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His Great Society went well beyond what Kennedy envisioned. “He’s done,” wrote Walter Lippmann in April 1964, “what President Kennedy could not have done had he lived.”

Kennedy all along had calculated that his first term would be a period for developing programs, for sowing seeds that a second term would allow him to bring to fruition. He might have run a modified version of the Great Society much more successfully than Johnson did, without the middle-class entitlements and the immense and inflationary burden upon the economy.

It is sometimes difficult to know whether Kennedy was a visionary or simply a rhetorician. He did have a high sense of adventure, which he combined with patriotism in the launching of his plan to put a man on the moon and thereby repay the Soviets for the technological humiliations of Sputnik. He did imagine a better America, a fairer place, a more excellent place. He even believed that it was part of his task as President to lift American culture. He and his wife Jacqueline brought Pablo Casals and Igor Stravinsky and Bach and Mozart to the White House. His own taste may have run more toward Sinatra or Broadway musicals, but Kennedy believed that it was his duty to endorse the excellent in all things, to be a leader in matters of civilization. That was a novel notion in American politics, novel at least since the days of Thomas Jefferson.

A judgment on Kennedy’s presidential performance inevitably ends in a perplexity of conditional clauses. If he had lived and been elected to a second term, Kennedy would have become, at age 50 or so, a world leader, with unprecedented moral authority. Perhaps. One of Kennedy’s strongest qualities was his capacity to learn from experience, to grow. His first six months in office were nearly a disaster. But by 1963 he was far maturer, riper, smarter, still passionate, but seasoned. It is interesting to wonder what his second Inaugural Address would have sounded like. It would almost surely not have reverberated with the grandiloquent bluster that one heard in the first.

It is possible, in any case, that the manner of Kennedy’s leaving the office, his assassination, much more profoundly affected the course of America than anything he did while he was in the White House. There was a kind of dual effect: his death enacted his legislative program and at the same time seemed to let loose monsters, to unhinge the nation in some deep way that sent it reeling down a road toward riots and war and assassinations and Watergate.

One Kennedy revisionist, Garry Wills, argues that the extraordinary glamour and heightened expectations that Kennedy brought to the office have crippled all of his successors. They cannot compete with such a powerful myth. It is equally possible, of course, that Kennedy’s successors simply do not measure up. Kennedy’s was a mind with all of its windows open and a clear light passing through it. That has not been true of anyone who has sat in the place since.

Robert K. Murray of Pennsylvania State University has surveyed 1,000 Ph.D. historians as part of a study on how such authorities assess American Presidents. The 1,000 rated Kennedy 13th, in the middle of the “above average” category. Those considered great: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. Near great: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman. Above average: John Adams, Lyndon Johnson, James K. Polk, John Kennedy, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland.

The fact is that Kennedy was in the White House so short a time that he almost cannot be judged against other Presidents. The first twelve or 18 months of any presidency are a learning period during which the man in the Oval Office must get his bearings and put his Administration in place for the work he hopes to accomplish. That would not have given Kennedy—elected in a squeaker, with no clear mandate and no working majority in Congress—much time to prove himself.

American political moods run in cycles. Periods of activity and reform, of idealism and change, alternate with more quiescent, complacent, even cynical times. Schlesinger believes that the activist cycle comes around every 30 years or so. Thus the era of Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century, then the New Deal beginning in 1933, then Kennedy in 1961. By Schlesinger’s hopeful calculation, the U.S. will be ripe for another time of idealism and political innovation toward the end of this decade.

The wave of negative revisionism about Kennedy may now be receding. But the myth of John Kennedy will undoubtedly outlive the substance of what he achieved. History will remember not so much what he did as what he was, a memory kept in some vault of the national imagination. In the end, the American appreciation of Kennedy may come to be not political but aesthetic, and vaguely religious. —By Lance Morrow.

Reported by Hays Corey/Washington and John F. Stacks/New York, with other bureaus

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