How JFK's Assassination Changed American Politics

By Barone, Michael | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, October 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

How JFK's Assassination Changed American Politics


Barone, Michael, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Almost every American of a certain age remembers where he was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

The nation stopped and mourned. In their grief, few Americans wondered how the tragedy would affect domestic politics, and in the short run relatively little changed. "Let us continue," President Lyndon Johnson said when he addressed Congress after the funeral.

In the longer run, the effect on partisan politics, on the people and press and parties, was profound. And those effects continue to reverberate today.

Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, who were taken from the stage just as they completed historic undertakings -- the Civil War, World War II -- Kennedy was murdered when he and his administration were in the middle of things. The tax cuts he had proposed in February 1963 and the civil rights bill he had endorsed that year had been long delayed in Congress. But, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time, they were well on their way to passage when he died.

Relations with the Soviet Union were stable after resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The United States was already sending more troops to Vietnam, and Kennedy's approval of the Nov. 1 coup against the Diem government committed the United States to continuing responsibility there.

Politically, Kennedy's job approval had declined significantly from about 70 percent, but only because of the defection of Southern whites on civil rights. In the rest of the nation he was highly popular and running ahead of any Republican by margins larger than those enjoyed by Franklin Roosevelt. That suggests that he would have nearly matched the 61 percent of the vote Lyndon Johnson got in November 1964, with some slippage in Johnson's Texas and the Border South.

The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist who had lived for three years in Soviet Russia and married a Russian woman; he later tried to travel to Cuba and joined a pro-Castro group. But Oswald was murdered while being moved from prison two days after Kennedy's death and any chance to learn more from him was lost.

That helped to spawn conspiracy theories that have thrived ever since, even though the commission appointed by Johnson and headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren named him as the sole assassin. Americans did seem to accept one corollary of that conclusion, that the Soviet or Cuban governments were not involved, which would have amounted to an act of war.

Instead of turning against communists, many American leaders turned against America, and this had a transformative effect on American politics. New York Times columnist James Reston, the dean of American journalism, said Kennedy's assassination was a symptom of a sick society. The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an aide in the Kennedy White House, said that Kennedy's death was evidence that America was an overly violent society. Their views were in line with many people's first assumption when they heard the president had been killed in Dallas -- that a rabid right-winger killed him.

The city was known then for its loud-mouthed conservatives who, among other things, jostled Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson in a downtown hotel in 1960. But none of that fit the facts that quickly emerged. Oswald was an exceedingly atypical American, violent crime rates were far below the level they would reach in a few years, and Kennedy had been a lukewarm supporter of civil rights until persuaded by events in June 1963 that he must take a stand.

Among Americans generally, there was a loss of confidence in the nation and its institutions. In the two decades before the Kennedy assassinations, pollsters generally found great confidence in presidents and major institutions, the prime exception being when the Korean War became stalemated in 1951. This was not unreasonable: The United States had won World War II and, unexpectedly, the nation experienced an economic boom in the postwar years. …

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