During my freshman year of college, I took a class on the Kennedy presidency. It’s easy to be swept up in the beauty and allure of Camelot, particularly for a teen predisposed to romanticising the 1960s. So a class dedicated to JFK’s time in office seemed like a natural fit in my political science schedule. But the class was less about the Kennedy Presidency and more about the Kennedy Assassination. In the popular imagination, that is what the Kennedy legacy is: A handsome man and his beautiful words coming to a tragic end.
After that class I started reading extensively about the Kennedy family. My bookshelves are lined with thick books chronicling the rise of the Kennedy political dynasty, the dynamics of an ambitious family charting new waters. John was the second son, thrust into the political fast lane after the death of his older brother. Young and handsome and charismatic, surrounded by a cadre of equally young and attractive siblings, it’s no wonder he captured the public imagination. He was the New America, the Young America, sweeping away the old order. He and his lovely wife became internationally adored icons, throngs of supporters greeting them at home and abroad. Despite policy mistakes, that image of Kennedy as a Promising Future has lived on.
Kennedy’s time in office is defined by promise. His working relationship with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, his stance on Civil Rights, his grand vision of peace “for all time,” the lingering questions of what he would have done in Vietnam — it’s all become a question of “What if?” What if he’d had more time? What if he and Khrushchev could have moved forward with detente? What if Vietnam hadn’t been escalated? With his illness and infidelity, a JFK couldn’t be elected president in today’s 24-hour news cycle world. But his flaws are fodder built into the larger-than-life image of a young man who could have been so much. Perhaps this is the safest way to remember heroes, as vehicles for our own national regret. Kennedy has become the way out of later strife and political crisis, the ramifications of which we’re still feeling today.
For me, Kennedy’s legacy does not stand alone. He didn’t exist in a vacuum, and when I think of his time in office I think of his family. The Kennedy Legacy is not just President Kennedy. The legacy is Eunice Shriver’s creation of the Special Olympics. It’s Robert Kennedy’s work to raise awareness of the poverty in the Mississippi Delta. It’s Ethel Kennedy’s continued advocacy work with leaders like Cesar Chavez. It’s Ted Kennedy’s tireless work in the Senate, carrying the torch his brothers lit. It’s JFK’s daughter Caroline’s post as ambassador to Japan. It’s the work of the next generation, at the RFK Center for Human Rights and a continued presence in Congress.
The tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination is one part of the Kennedy story, a story marked by rising up after tragedy to push forward in the name of justice. If we’re to truly honor the memory of President Kennedy, perhaps the most profound means we have is to shift the focus of our memories away from his death and to the realization of the ideals for which he stood. As the late Senator Ted Kennedy said, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
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