Former President John F. Kennedy still has a powerful hold on America's imagination 50 years after his assassination, according to a new poll.
The survey found that 84 percent of Americans 54 and older (who were at least five years old at the time of the president's death) have a "clear and vivid memory" of Kennedy's assassination, and 12 percent have a "vague memory." This compares with 95 percent of adults who have a clear and vivid memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks from 2001, which occurred much more recently.
Fifty-nine percent of Americans said they admire Kennedy a great deal or a fair amount, and an additional 23 percent said they admire him "just some."
Asked to choose the one or two best presidents who served between 1950 and 2000, 46 percent of Americans said Bill Clinton, 46 percent said Ronald Reagan, and 41 percent said Kennedy. No other president came close.
Twenty-nine percent said Kennedy's policies and legacy had a "great deal' of impact on the country; 42 percent said he had a "fair amount" of impact, and 17 percent said he had "just some impact.
Nineteen per cent said the "most profound change" made by Kennedy was promoting civil rights; 17 percent said standing up to Cuba and the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis, and 13 percent said starting the space program that put a man on the moon. Most people also listed these as Kennedy's top three accomplishments.
Most Americans felt he was charismatic, patriotic, a strong leader, courageous, inspirational, optimistic, wealthy and privileged, and concerned about the average person, according to the survey.
The poll, conducted by Hart Research, is part of a new book by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, "The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy." Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, 1963.
Given a list of presidents and asked which one they would most want to "bring back" to be the next president, 24 percent said Ronald Reagan, 21 percent said Bill Clinton, 13 percent said Kennedy, 9 percent said Abraham Lincoln, 6 percent said Franklin Roosevelt, and 5 percent said Barack Obama.
There were negative assessments of some Kennedy decisions and some of his behavior, notably his increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam and his adultery, but, overall, Americans have a very positive picture of him.
Fifty-seven percent agreed with the statement that Kennedy's assassination "took away America's innocence. Thirty-five percent said, "It marked the end of an era of peace and prosperity," and 29 percent said, "It made Americans more cynical and more divided."
Sabato also commissioned a scientific analysis of the recording from a police scanner that congressional investigators in 1979 said showed there was a probability that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone in killing Kennedy. The investigators said the tape indicated that there were four gunshots, and not all from the same place. But Sabato concluded that the recording was flawed and he said it was wrong to use it to argue there might have been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. However, Sabato added that, although the police recording doesn't prove it, the possibility of a conspiracy cannot be totally dismissed.
The survey found that 44 percent of Americans strongly agreed that Oswald may not have acted alone, and 31 percent somewhat agreed, because "there are still too many questions surrounding Kennedy's assassination."
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.