Among the many monuments to the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, perhaps the most striking is the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, which more than three hundred thousand people visit each year. It is located in what was once the Texas School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald waited on November 22, 1963, to shoot at the president's motorcade. The museum is an oddity in itself in its close physical association with Kennedy's death, although the impressive exhibits trace much more than the history of the assassination. But the most memorable (and eerie) moment of a visit to the museum is when visitors turn a corner on the sixth floor and suddenly look out over Dealey Plaza from the window through which Oswald fired his infamous shots. The space is cluttered with boxes, as it had been on that November afternoon.
Almost equally memorable is the guest book in which visitors have signed their names and identified the towns or cities or countries in which they live. Many of them write comments. Some are tributes to Kennedy himself: "Our greatest President." "Oh how we miss him!" "The greatest man since Jesus Christ." At least as many others write about the assassination itself and what they consider the mendacity of the Warren Commission and the government's effort to hide the conspiracies that lay behind Kennedy's death.
John Kennedy's legacy remains enormous decades later. The reality of his life may not have lived up to his global reputation. But in his short presidency this reticent and pragmatic man became, in the eyes of the world, a charismatic leader who in his life and in his death became a symbol of hope and purpose.
As a young boy growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Kennedy years, I was entranced by him. His visibility was remarkable—his press conferences, his speeches, his visits across the world that attracted hundreds of thousands of admirers. He was the first president I was old enough to care about, and I devoured stories about him in newspapers, in magazines, and on television. I stood on Capitol Hill in 1961 to watch his inauguration, and I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1963 to see his funeral cortege move slowly to the Capitol Rotunda (while overhearing a transistor radio in the crowd describing the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald). The drama of his life and the tragedy of his death left an indelible mark on my memory, as it did on millions of people of my generation—and even on many others who were born after he died.
From the beginning, Kennedy's presidency seemed different. He was hugely popular through most of his presidency, described constantly by such words as charisma, grace, vigor, purpose. He was young, rich, handsome, witty, eloquent. He published essays, articles, and a book that won a Pulitzer Prize. He had a beautiful wife and charming young children. He brought a kind of exhilaration to Washington. "The capital city, somnolent in the Eisenhower years, had suddenly come alive," Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote of Kennedy in 1965. "The air had been stale and oppressive; now fresh winds were blowing. There was the excitement which comes from the injection of new men and new ideas, the release of energy which occurs when men of ideas have a chance to put them into practice."1
A decade later, most historians were treating Kennedy more lightly. In the scholarly rankings of presidents since World War II, Kennedy has tended to rank mostly in the middle of the pack. The political scientist Richard Neustadt—a great admirer of Kennedy—remarked in the 1970s that "he will be just a flicker, forever clouded by the record of his successors. I don't think history will have much space for John Kennedy."2
Kennedy's image did not always match reality. His famous vigor and energy hid serious lifelong illnesses. The image of his attractive family disguised his almost pathological womanizing. His first year in office was, as he himself admitted, a disaster. He was unable to pass most of the legislation he proposed. He was slow to embrace the civil rights movement, conservative in his embrace of Keynesianism, aloof and ineffective in his dealings with Congress. Through much of his presidency, he was largely reactive, driven by external events rather than by his own goals. A plan by the Eisenhower administration drove him heedlessly into the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. A decision by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, encouraged by what he considered Kennedy's weakness, drove him into the Cuban missile crisis. A decade of precedent led him reluctantly but decisively into Vietnam. That Kennedy was not always as bold as he wanted the world to believe was not, perhaps, a weakness. His worst decisions were often his boldest ones.
None of this seemed to hurt him politically. His rhetoric almost always got him out of trouble. He promised to "get the country moving again." He sought a "national purpose." He asked Americans to sacrifice for the good of all. Americans liked these challenges, even if they did little to meet them. And for much of his presidency, his public approval rating was at 70 percent or more.
Like most presidents, he had good times and bad times, successes and failures. His administration was dominated by the many problems and crises he encountered—in Cuba, Laos, Berlin, and Vietnam; and in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Some of these crises he managed adroitly and, at times, courageously. Others he could not resolve. It would be hard to call him a great president, but neither was he a failure. He contributed to a reshaping of the Cold War, making it somewhat less dangerous and somewhat more manageable. His presidency launched dramatic new programs: civil rights bills, Medicare, the outlines of the War on Poverty. None of them became law in his lifetime. But all of them became law after his death, and in part because of it. Perhaps most surprising of all, John Kennedy—who almost never revealed passion—seemed to many people a passionate and idealistic liberal. "For a time we felt the country was ours," Norman Mailer said after his death. "Now it's theirs again."3 But Mailer missed the point. In his lifetime Kennedy was never "ours," but neither was he "theirs." Only after his death did he become the property of the world.