As you have probably noticed by now, today marks the 50th anniversary of the day President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. Historian Alvin Felzenberg, who has written on presidents and other pols, and is currently working on a biography of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the place of this death in history.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: JFK was assassinated 50 years ago today. Beyond the loss of life, the blow to the country, and the historical facts, what’s the significance a half-century later?
ALVIN FELZENBERG: To anyone who was alive on November 22, 1963, the assassination of Kennedy was what 9/11 would be to future generations. The sun shone bright on both days and tragedy came relatively early. The same questions came to mind on both occasions: How could this happen? Why did it happen? How could it have been allowed to happen?
The death of Kennedy coincided with the maturation of television as a powerful media force, which replaced print and radio as the public’s primary source of information. It was reported that 91 percent of American homes had the television on continuously over the course of four days, from the announcement of Kennedy’s death until the completion of his funeral. Networks lost over $50 million in advertising.
Back then, television acted as a unifying force in the country. It is hard for those who grew up in the age of cable and the Internet, entities that cater to ideological market segmentation and other niches, to conceive of the impact the three networks had on our national life and on how we formed our opinions.
Finally, in retrospect, Kennedy’s assassination does appear as a turning point in American history. His presidency, whatever its limitations and failings, harkens back to a time when government was seen to have been a force for good. It had marshaled the nation’s energies and resources to win World War II; it had helped conquer polio and other disease; it was about to explore the heavens and land a man on the moon.
After Kennedy came the “great overreach” — a loss of will, and more blatant abuses of power than even the ones conservatives railed against in the days of FDR. In rapid succession came Vietnam, other assassinations, civil unrest, antiwar and other protests, Watergate, the Great Inflation, the decline of the public schools, the never-ending “urban crisis,” two impeachment investigations, three inconclusive wars in the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Great Recession of 2007, and all the rest — not to mention Obamacare. But for that shining interval known as the “Reagan presidency,” we have witnessed almost continual upheavals — not that the Kennedy years were all that tranquil, with Berlin, Birmingham, Montgomery, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Since Kennedy’s passing, the federal government added no less than five new Cabinet departments: Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. Under Kennedy, unemployment remained largely under 4 percent. Too many analysts today, including the president, appear to regard 7.2 percent as the “new normal.” And, as a result of the tax cuts Kennedy proposed and Johnson implemented, the economy grew by about 6 percent annually. We have all but gotten used in the past half dozen years to “anemic” growth. I doubt that anyone running for president in 2016 would dare promise to get growth anywhere near 6 percent.
LOPEZ: You wrote a book evaluating presidents, The Leaders We Deserved. How does JFK rate?
FELZENBERG: I assign each president a grade from one to five (with five being the highest) in six categories: character, competence, vision, economic leadership, national-security enhancement, and the preservation of freedom. I gave Kennedy a three on character and a four on all the others.
LOPEZ: What’s his predominant legacy?
FELZENBERG: I think it is fourfold:
(1) Kennedy was the first president to say that the rights of all Americans to enjoy the freedoms set forth in the nation’s founding documents was a “moral issue.” Always one to assign credit where it was due, Bill Buckley noted that, on this one, Kennedy got there ahead of him.
(2) Kennedy demonstrated for the second time in the last century that marginal tax cuts can grow the economy, shrink unemployment, increase revenues, and usher in long periods of sustained economic growth. Harding and Coolidge did it before him; Reagan would after him.
(3) Kennedy challenged his fellow citizens to strive for excellence and “give back” something of themselves in its pursuit and on behalf of their country. Kennedy’s clarion call, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was a repudiation of the culture of dependency. It entailed more than working for the government. The Peace Corps and the reach for the moon were but two examples of this. So were strides the nation made in science, the arts, and sports.
(4) Through his management of the Cuban Crisis, which was itself the product of a botched attempt to free Cuba from Castro’s tyranny, Kennedy found a “third way” between “red” and “dead.” We now know that, contrary to intelligence reports at the time, the Soviets had installed tactical nuclear weapons on what Kennedy called “that imprisoned island.” Their presence would have made the costs of an invasion considerably higher than his advisers anticipated at the time.
LOPEZ: How has he influenced American politics?
FELZENBERG: Kennedy was the first candidate not only to master television but to make it the predominant means through which he projected his message and ran his campaign. It was he who challenged Richard Nixon to debate. It was he who opted for live press conferences. It was the first couple, President and Mrs. Kennedy, who decided to take the nation on a White House tour.