R.I.P. JFK - 50 years later
The half century that has passed since the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a long time in the life of this young and dynamic country, covering more than 20 percent of U.S. history. It is all the more so because the nation's only constant is change.
On Nov. 22, 1963, the population of the United States was just over 180 million, compared with more than 310 million now. More significantly, most of it still was east of the Mississippi River. California, which now has more than 37 million residents, had just under 16 million in 1963 and was the second most populous state, behind New York and ahead of Pennsylvania.
JFK himself was, of course, an agent of change. He was the first president born in the 20th century and the first Catholic president, which at the time marked a transformation as great as the election 48 years later of the first black president.
And he was young, just 43 at his inauguration and 46 when he died. His youth and optimistic world view - or inexperience and naïveté to his critics - played huge roles in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion early in his presidency and in his summit with Nikita Kruschev, who treated him dismissively. But his philosophy proved invaluable when he maneuvered the United States and Soviet Union away from a global nuclear war to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At home Kennedy was an inspirational figure whose presidency was too short to realize his vision. He made public service cool, calling an entire generation to serve and giving many of them the opportunity to do so through the Peace Corps. Millions more found hope in his nascent efforts on civil rights - a battle taken up by his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, across the remainder of an extremely turbulent decade.
Historians have had ample time to study JFK and they, generally, are not as enthralled as the public with his performance. And because his presidency was so short, there is an incomplete record on which the blanks often are filled by speculation. Would Vietnam have become a quagmire? Would civil rights law have been changed with less unrest? It's impossible to say.
Yet there is no doubt that JFK inspired the public across generations. A Gallup poll published Nov. 15 found that 74 percent rated him above average or outstanding; among 18-to-29-year-olds, 83 percent did so. Gallup also noted that during his 1,000 days in office, Kennedy's job-approval rating averaged 70 percent, the highest in Gallup's history of systematically measuring it.
Only about one third of Americans alive today were alive when Kennedy was, and most of those folks can tell you exactly where they were when they heard of the assassination.
JFK was the enthusiastic herald of a new America - not simply in style, as some critics have claimed, but in substance ranging from social justice at home to power projection and democracy-building abroad.
Whatever else may be said of JFK, personally or politically, he was an enduring and uniquely American phenomenon.