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Bill Press: Kennedy’s legacy

It was especially poignant to see Caroline Kennedy, America’s new ambassador to Japan, present her credentials to Emperor Akihito last week. Coming just three days before the 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination in Dallas, it was a vivid demonstration that the impact of John F. Kennedy’s presidency is still very much alive.

At times, it was painful, but the media hoopla surrounding this anniversary said something very powerful. It said that even though he served in office for fewer than three years, and even though his legislative accomplishments were slim, JFK had a more lasting impact on the American people than any other president in our lifetime. It’s important to stop and ask ourselves why.

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Partly, it’s because he was so young and handsome, and had such a beautiful wife and family. And, let’s be honest, like President Lincoln, the fact that Kennedy was assassinated earned him a certain amount of respect, affection and historical leeway most presidents don’t benefit from. But the Kennedy legacy is no less real and lasting.

For one thing, Kennedy exuded self-confidence. Even though he’d suffered through serious illness, he appeared to be the picture of perfect health. He played golf. He went sailing. He played touch football. He obviously loved life, and he made Americans feel good about themselves again. With Kennedy in the Oval Office, there was nothing impossible. If he said we’d put a man on the moon, by golly, we would. 

Kennedy was also smart as a whip and surrounded himself with smart people. And, as he demonstrated during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy was tough. It was a scary time, when big cities, refineries and power plants were considered targets for a nuclear strike at any time. But Americans knew they could count on the hero of PT-109 to win the day. 

Kennedy was not universally loved. He almost lost to Nixon. But his charm, wit, eloquence and ease with the media soon won him the respect, if not the affection, of an entire nation. Would it work today? Probably not. Times are different. Politics and the media are much less forgiving. But the Kennedy magic worked then and still does.

On a personal note, I was a senior in high school when a young senator from Massachusetts came to Wilmington, Del., the year after electrifying the nation with his speech to the 1956 Democratic National Convention, withdrawing his name from consideration as vice president. Classmate Pete Feeney and I interviewed him for our high school newspaper. He talked about writing Profiles of Courage while recovering from back surgery, and encouraged us to get involved in politics by volunteering in local campaigns.

It was no “Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden” moment, but my brief encounter with Kennedy instilled in me a belief in public service and a faith in the political process that remains strong to this day. I’m only one of millions worldwide whom JFK inspired, and continues to inspire.

 

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.