His injection of the United States into Vietnam, which ended in disaster when Lyndon Johnson vastly escalated the conflict, still generates hot debates. His supporters say he never would have gotten the United States so deeply involved in the swamp. Others say he was headed in that direction.
Kennedy's assassination marked the start of what seemed to be a national nervous breakdown and other traumas followed. Racial frictions grew and there were riots in many cities. Young people lost faith in the older generation, particularly over the escalating Vietnam war, and anti-war and counter-cultural demonstrations proliferated. Crime increased and many didn't feel safe in their neighborhoods. In April 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the acclaimed civil rights leader, was killed. Two months later, Robert Kennedy, the slain president's brother, was murdered as he campaigned for the White House. In July 1969, Edward Kennedy, the only surviving brother of President Kennedy, was caught up in a scandal when he drove a car that crashed on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., leaving a young woman passenger dead. In May 1972, presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and permanently disabled. In retrospect, the Kennedy era seemed a bright spot just before forces of darkness descended on the country.
"Like all presidents, Kennedy had successes and failures," writes historian Alan Brinkley. "His administration was dominated by a remarkable number of problems and crises—in Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam; and in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Some of these, he managed adroitly and, at times, courageously. Many, he could not resolve. He was a reserved, pragmatic man who almost never revealed passion.
"Yet many people saw him—and still do—as an idealistic and, yes, passionate president who would have transformed the nation and the world, had he lived. His legacy has only grown in the 50 years since his death. That he still embodies a rare moment of public activism explains much of his continuing appeal: He reminds many Americans of an age when it was possible to believe that politics could speak to society's moral yearnings and be harnessed to its highest aspirations. More than anything, perhaps, Kennedy reminds us of a time when the nation's capacities looked limitless, when its future seemed unbounded, when Americans believed that they could solve hard problems and accomplish bold deeds."
What really matters to most Americans is that Kennedy lifted their spirits, and continues to do so. In the current era of government shutdown and near-default, stalemate and recrimination, pettiness and partisanship, few politicians can approach his level of charisma or his ability to inspire. And that may be the biggest loss of all.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.
For more about John F. Kennedy, visit JFK: 50 Years Later.