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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Kennedy didn't have much of a legislative record, especially when compared with his successor Lyndon B. Johnson. The former vice president, who was also the former Senate majority leader, used Kennedy's assassination to boost JFK's unfinished agenda. LBJ capitalized on the public's desire to follow through on the martyred president's initiatives, and Johnson pushed many of them to fruition.

But Kennedy did move the nation in other historic ways:

He recognized the civil rights movement as a moral imperative. It was belated and hesitant at first, but Kennedy did embrace the movement in ways his predecessors had not, arguing that it was a matter of fundamental justice to grant African Americans equal rights and equal opportunity. In a nationally televised address on June 11, 1963, he declared, "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." He said black Americans were entitled to the same rights and privileges as whites, and urged Congress to desegregate the nation's schools, protect black voters trying to cast their ballots, and pass legislation "giving all Americans the right to be served" in public facilities.

He was the first Catholic to be elected president. JFK was a ground-breaker in overcoming anti-Catholic prejudice. And even though no Catholic has won the presidency since Kennedy's election in 1960, in the past 50 years many Catholics have risen very high in political life, including Vice President Joe Biden. And few believe that being a Catholic is a hindrance to winning the presidency since Kennedy made it clear that Catholics aren't alien beings and they aren't beholden to the Vatican in their political decisions.

He recognized and exploited the power of television and was the first true TV president. Telegenic, vigorous and fast on this feet, Kennedy won his crucial first debate with Republican nominee Richard Nixon in 1960, which gave him an edge in the campaign. He also made deft use of TV as a weapon in his arsenal of persuasion as president. His TV addresses were riveting, and his news conferences were fascinating and fun to watch. Kennedy also used TV to create the impression that he was a devoted family man. He appeared on television shows with his glamorous young wife Jacqueline, and allowed photographers to capture endearing images of his children at the White House. Overall, his use of TV helped to make him a celebrity.

He made youthful vigor and energy important ingredients in national leadership. He was the second youngest person ever to serve as president and the youngest ever to be elected. This gave his time in office a special luster. "Kennedy didn't grow old," said historian H.W. Brands at a recent symposium at Bismarck State College. "He reminds us of our youth and the possibilities of youth." (Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president ever. He was 42 years and 10 months old when, as vice president, he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley in the White House in September 1901. Kennedy was 43 years and 7 months old when he took office in January 1961.)

He was willing to learn on the job, and admit his mistakes. Kennedy biographer Bob Dallek ("An Unfinished Life, Camelot's Court") told me that JFK liked to surround himself with strong-minded advisers, and he was confident enough to let them disagree with him. A good example of his willingness to learn focused on the civil rights movement. Kennedy educated himself about it, and eventually embraced it, placing him on the right side of history. He learned an important lesson from the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961—to be skeptical of the hawkish leaders of the American military. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy was much more willing to trust his own judgment rather than rely on the military brass. This helped him to navigate the crisis successfully.

There is also a negative part of the Kennedy legacy, such as his risky adulteries and the secrets he kept about his many physical problems, including the extent of his Addison's Disease and debilitating back pain. Contrary to his vigorous, glowing image, his health was actually quite poor.