Probing the Mysteries of John F. Kennedy on the 30th Anniversary of His Assassination, Mixed Views about the Former President

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

Probing the Mysteries of John F. Kennedy on the 30th Anniversary of His Assassination, Mixed Views about the Former President


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


JOHN F. KENNEDY has been the subject of so many investigations, reminiscences, probes, ruminations, theories, and examinations that today, 30 years after his assassination, the Library of Congress contains twice as many books about him as it does about Elvis.

There are the classics, such books as "Death of a President" by William Manchester, and Arthur Schlesinger's "A Thousand Days." There are self-published assassination volumes: "Is President John F. Kennedy Alive - and Well?," by Bernard Bane, is in its 14th printing. There are entire books on the grassy knoll, the magic bullet, and JFK's scrimshaw collection.

At the heart of this enduring fascination with President Kennedy's life and death is their mystery.

There is the mystery of his murder, of course, but there is also a mystery of the living foregone, of what he would or wouldn't have accomplished, of what kind of man age would have revealed him to be.

On the anniversary of JFK's death, debate about his legacy seems, if anything, more heated than ever.

"He was a complicated, interesting individual who has been seen through many different prisms," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University.

His first prism-image was one of vitality. At the time of his election, he seemed an antidote to his stodgy predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower.

Kennedy played touch football instead of golf, had all his hair, favored political movement over inaction. Since the 1960s, historians have begun to see Ike as a shrewder chief executive than his public persona - but at the time, it was JFK who seemed to stand for the future.

His second prism-image was one of martyr. After Lee Harvey Oswald (or some other assassin, if one believes conspiracy theories) pulled the trigger in Dallas, any doubts about his administration were subsumed in collective grief over the lost promise of Camelot.

In late 1963, many in Washington thought Kennedy's presidency to that point had involved more flash than substance. Hard work on domestic issues such as civil rights and medical care for the elderly was left for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yet it was Kennedy who brought these problems to the nation's attention, argues one historian. Ironically, his death may have made it easier for them to be addressed. LBJ benefited from his predecessor's political spadework.

"Federal aid to education, passage of Medicaid ... Kennedy put those things on the political agenda," says Ed Berkowitz, a professor of political science at George Washington University. …

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