Kennedy: The myth, the man and his times

Hisham Melhem

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Fifty years after his assassination in Dallas, TX, President John F. Kennedy, the youngest ever elected to office, remains the most admired and popular president since 1950. His youthful images, along with his beautiful wife and young children are deeply etched like no other American president in modern times, in the collective memory of the American people. His character and fairy tale life, courage as a war hero, his meteoric rise as politician, his charm, quick wit, and New England accent, his brief princely reign at the White House that became the mythical Camelot, and finally his tragic fall and martyrdom at the prime of his life, are the stuff of Shakespearian tragedies. Even his recklessness as a philanderer, which was fully exposed after his killing, did not diminish his stature much and probably endeared him to some as part of his princely entitlements. Just as Kennedy’s handsome young face is frozen in time, his mystique will endure because there will always be questions surrounding his assassination, the motives of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and those of Jack Ruby who entered history through the door opened by Oswald when he decided to kill him. Kennedy’s assassination is the single most investigated crime in history, and although most serious historians believe the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Oswald pulled the trigger, people are still asking the perennial question: “Will we ever know the truth about the Kennedy assassination?”

Kennedy’s pride of place in the pantheon of American heroes, and the elevated status of his family in American history was cemented further when tragic death continued to claim young Kennedys, including the President’s brother Robert and his son John. In some Democratic households JFK was almost canonized.

The fascination, some would say obsession, with JFK, who served only a thousand days in office and did not leave any major consequential legislations, says a lot about Americans. It says a lot about how they saw their country during that short moment in history, and more importantly, the unraveling that followed those fateful three bullets fired by Oswald. Kennedy was our first “celebrity” president. His rise coincided with the rise of television, the medium that perfectly fit Kennedy’s style in communications, particularly during those witty first televised press conferences and first televised presidential debates. By the time of the tragedy in Dallas, television has become the main source of information for most Americans. Ironically, Kennedy’s assassination and the dizzying events that followed; the swearing-in of Lyndon Baines Johnson as the new president, the killing of Oswald and Kennedy’s funeral were the first events that were covered live for four days. From that moment on, television news radically changed and in the process changed us.

Kennedy and his times

Kennedy’s brief era has been sanitized to a large extent and is still presented as the time of promise, innocence, peace, optimism, power and prosperity. During Kennedy’s times America’s economy was more that 30 percent of the world’s economy. GDP grew by an average of 5.5 percent during his term, and he presided over the first $100 billion budget in history. Kennedy’s goals were ambitious whether on earth or in space. His “New Frontier” program envisioned a primary role for the federal government to fund education developing rural areas and provide care for the elderly. Although initially he was very cautious in proposing bold anti-discrimination legislation, he did so later, but his proposals languished in congress because of the opposition of many Democrats in the South. When the Soviets succeeded in sending a cosmonaut to orbit the earth in April 1961, Kennedy vigorously took the challenged and committed the U.S. “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Kennedy’s creation of the “Peace Corps,” a creative program where American volunteers would serve in developing countries to help in such areas as health care, education and farming endeared him in America and the world. No wonder, Kennedy’s job approval during his tenure hovered around an astounding 70 percent.

Kennedy is not remembered for his domestic or international achievements, which are meager, in as much as he is remembered for his ability to inspire and uplift a generation of Americans

Hisham Melhem

It was in relation to Cuba where Kennedy faced his worst and best moments in his short presidency. The humiliating failure of the amateurish invasion of Cuba, or the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs severely damaged Kennedy’s reputation, but it taught him to be cautious. That lesson served him well later during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he resisted the counsel of some of his military and national security aides to use force to destroy the missiles and their launchers. That fine hour that saved the world from a possible nuclear exchange, did not extend to his management of the Vietnam War. When Kennedy was elected, the number of American military advisors in Vietnam was in the hundreds. During his term the number morphed to 16,000. Kennedy is not remembered for his domestic or international achievements, which are meager, in as much as he is remembered for his ability to inspire and uplift a generation of Americans to renew their faith in America’s boundless talents and its unique mission as a positive force in the world.

Yet, for all the optimism that characterized Kennedy and his times, and much of it was grounded in reality, there was the stench of racial injustice, and economic disparities but many were in denial of this embarrassing soft under belly, for Camelot was shining too bright, and the illusions weaved around it were too intoxicating . Kennedy was denied the chance to see through his legislative agenda, and that mission fell to his able successor President Johnson whose legendary mastery of the Senate helped later on to pass the landmark Civil Right Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid bills, that made Johnson a consequential president, despite his historic failure in Vietnam which forced him not seek another term.

The unraveling

Novelist Tom Wolfe was prescient when he saw in Kennedy’s assassination “the prologue to America’s season of violence.” Kennedy’s era was a watershed in every sense. Its tragic end gives us that moment where we could say with some certainty that the America of the years that led to Kennedy’s times became a different country in the uncertain and bleak post-Kennedy years. After Camelot, the optimism in America’s future, the faith in its political and legal institutions to mediate differences peacefully and fairly, gave way, to doubts, dangerous polarizations, more assassinations of political leaders and violence at home and abroad. America’s failure to honestly confront its racial daemons during its boom years following the Second World War and all the way to Kennedy’s reign, led to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and its long struggle against entrenched official and societal discrimination. This movement made common cause later on with the anti-Vietnam war movement which gripped America’s universities.

One reason Kennedy’s myth survives almost intact, is because he was assassinated before the great unraveling that destroyed the presidencies of Johnson and Richard Nixon and turned the streets in some of America’s cities into battlefields between the Police supported by the National guards and the protestors of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war coalition. It was at times surreal to watch American cities like Detroit, Washington, and Los Angeles burning during violent riots as well as the cities and jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In the decade that followed the tragic encounter of Oswald and Kennedy in Dallas, America became less tolerant and more sullen. Kennedy’s era was unique and cannot be restored. Most of those Americans who were alive then, still remember where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy fell. Fifty years later, we are still trying to assess Kennedy’s lasting legacy, unable to sort out fully facts from myths and struggling to understand that watershed moment in American history, knowing full well that we are still caught up in the great unraveling that began fifty years ago.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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