JFK: An Unfinished Legacy Cut Short by a Bullet

President Kennedy offered hope during a time of crisis before darkness set in

Thousands of supporters greet President John F. Kennedy in Fort Worth, Tex. He left for Dallas later that day.

Thousands of supporters greet President John F. Kennedy in Fort Worth, Tex. He left for Dallas later that day.

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Fifty years after his death, President John F. Kennedy retains an almost mystical hold on America's imagination. He is still seen as the glittering young prince struck down by an assassin at the height of his powers and before he could reach his potential. He has come to symbolize a more optimistic, confident America, ready to do battle with communism, eager to solve problems at home, intent on reinvigorating the nation's spirit and confident of the future. There is an intense desire for information about him, and an estimated 40,000 books have been published about JFK since his death. The 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22 is being commemorated with TV shows, movies, books, religious services and an endless stream of commentary and analysis in the news media.

[READ MORE: JFK: 50 Years Later]

It's a cliche to say that nearly every American of a certain age remembers where he or she was when they heard the news that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, but it's true. I was a student, sitting in class at St. Rose High School in Belmar, N.J., when the principal's quavering voice came over the public address system. She told us the news and announced that all the students, faculty and administrators would walk silently to our church next door to pray for the young leader. Kennedy was very important to us because he was a Roman Catholic, as we were, the first person of our faith to occupy the White House.

Our prayers weren't answered. Kennedy was pronounced dead that afternoon.

But it remains a riveting memory, a traumatic experience for the entire nation, deepened by the shared grief experienced during the live television coverage of his funeral. Our hearts broke again at the sight of his stricken widow and his young son saluting as his father's cortege passed by.

Scholars are still debating Kennedy's place in history using traditional measures, but that's not really the point. The meaning of JFK's presidency isn't etched in bills passed, executive orders signed, and policies implemented. It's what he meant in symbolic terms that has endeared him to so many.

Norman Mailer, in a 1960 Esquire article entitled "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," wrote that Kennedy demonstrated "a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round....It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation." He believed in the capacity of a "great man" to make a difference and shape his times, and that's what Kennedy tried to do.

As James Wolcott wrote in the November 2013 edition of Vanity Fair, "The policies and politics of the cut-short Kennedy administration fasten the minds of historians and think-tankers…but it is pop culture's fixation on the Kennedys and the sex-charged '60s (a fascination renewed with a rich coat of enamel by mod style and erotic gamesmanship of "Mad Men") that has kept the stage lights burning brightest in the afterlife. In an era in which most politicians looked as if they had been poured out of a cement truck into a business suit, living statues of square pieties, Kennedy was the first Pop Culture president, the man for whom the word "charisma' might have been christened—an action hero in acute hidden pain capable of picking up cues, changing speeds and adapting his electrical output to whatever the situation suggested, while a conscientious plodder like Richard Nixon looked so over-rehearsed that his hinges squeaked.

In survey after survey, Americans list Kennedy among the nation's best presidents, even though some scholars say he really doesn't deserve such a high ranking.

His two major foreign policy decisions, the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, delivered mixed results. The first was a disaster and the second was a triumph.