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50 years on, JFK presidency remembered for renewing American hope

November 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
John F. Kennedy's presidency grappled with contentious national issues. Yet when his time in office was cut short, grief for his death crossed all ideological lines. Gwen Ifill talks to authors Ellen Fitzpatrick, William P. Jones, Bill Minutaglio and Robert Dallek about the legacy JFK left on the United States.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: another take on the Kennedy assassination.

Gwen Ifill sat down recently with a group of authors and historians to discuss the late president, and the mark he continues to leave on this nation a half-century after his death.

GWEN IFILL: To discuss President Kennedy’s legacy and the impact of his assassination on the country, we’re joined by Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and author of the book “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation,” now a documentary film., William P. Jones, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the book “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights,” Bill Minutaglio, professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the book “Dallas 1963,” and Robert Dallek, author of the books “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House” and “An Unfinished Life.”

Welcome to you all.

ROBERT DALLEK, presidential historian: Nice to be here.

(CROSSTALK)

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GWEN IFILL: Bob Dallek, it’s famously known that Kennedy’s presidency lasted for 1,000 days.

ROBERT DALLEK: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Was there a legacy that could be formed after 1,000 days?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, you know, Gwen, a lot of people must think so, since there are 40,000 books that have been published about him since he died.

And there is a very important legacy. He’s become an iconic figure. He commands 85 percent approval in a Gallup poll. It’s really kind of astonishing. The sixth briefest presidency in American history, 1,000 days, but, you see, I think what recommends him so powerfully to people is they don’t like his successors, Johnson with Vietnam, Nixon with Watergate, Ford’s truncated presidency, Jimmy Carter, the two Bushes.

And Kennedy, I think to this day, gives people a kind of hope. He’s frozen in our minds at the age of 46. People can’t imagine that now he’d be 96 years old, you see, but he’s promised. He’s the future. He still looks like us. He has a kind of halo over his head. And it’s tabula rasa. You can write anything on the slate that you care to write.

GWEN IFILL: While there are any number of things that he certainly is credited with having accomplished and achieved during his brief time, but I want to ask you, William Jones, about one of them, which is civil rights. He was of course president during the March on Washington, and it wasn’t a completely — it wasn’t an issue that he completely embraced, at least not at first.

WILLIAM P. JONES, University of Wisconsin-Madison: That’s right.

I mean, I think, actually, this is a great example of the way in which people write meaning on to him. Civil rights leaders immediately were openly dismayed by the assassination. One said the bullet that slayed the president also paralyzed the civil right cause.

And I think, in some ways, it’s a remarkable reaction, given the fact that these same leaders had spent his entire administration really clashing with him and saying he wasn’t doing anything. And it showed, I think, the degree to which they had actually pushed him around to supporting their cause, first in June of 1963 with the protests in Birmingham, which really forced him to come out and support a civil rights law and make a very powerful statement that civil rights was a moral cause, and then, in the fall, following the March on Washington, embracing a fair employment law and much stronger measures that he had been very reluctant to embrace, but I think under the pressure of this really powerful mass movement, had really changed his ideas.

And so, by the time he was assassinated, he was really seen as an important ally to the movement.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, there have also been other echoes left post-assassination that completely defined who John F. Kennedy was for so many people. Tell us about a couple of them.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Well, I think that Kennedy is somebody who, in so many ways, there was a convergence here of a particular man with a set of extraordinary skills, a great deal of charisma.

He was an extraordinarily articulate politician, a very warm and charming human being. And there’s a convergence of that with the new moment in our country, the rise of television. Kennedy was our first television president, but in a unique moment, when he suffered none of the downsides of the 24-hour cable news cycle. His private life, his medical history were really shielded from the public.

And so he really occupies a unique moment in our history, in some ways, a very privileged position for a president to be in. And, as Bob said, he is, in a sense, sort of frozen in that time. All of the revelations about him, all of the revisionism that historians have pursued since his death have done very little to alter that portrait that so many Americans maintain about him.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Minutaglio, you write about a slice of the Kennedy presidency that most people didn’t pay much attention to, and that’s what happened and surrounded that day in Dallas, how the people in Dallas may not have seen John F. Kennedy in the way that the rest of the nation did and then came to after the assassination.

BILL MINUTAGLIO, The University of Texas at Austin: Dallas was a singular city before Kennedy was assassinated. It had become the bastion, the citadel, really, of anti-Kennedy resistance in America, right there in the heartland, the buckle of the Bible Belt, fueled by the millions of millions of dollars, oilmen who resisted Kennedy and suspected him of socialism.

The leader of the Baptist faith in America was headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and believed that Kennedy was suffering through this control of the papacy, as a Roman Catholic, Catholicism being viewed in some ways as a dark art in some corridors of Dallas.

And so some were out there. Not everything was rosy in terms of the hagiography, the later and correct adulation of President Kennedy. Somewhere right there in the heartland of the country, there was this willing resistance, this notion that he was going to over-regulate, profess socialism again, perhaps practice a strange religion, and just move things away from — quote — “Southern traditions.”

GWEN IFILL: Bob Dallek, what do you think about that? And how much of — how much of John Kennedy’s accomplishment was driven by idealism and how much of it pragmatism, and were people right to be scared that he was pushing an agenda?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, he did have an agenda, which was in foreign affairs.

You know, he used to say that foreign policy can kill you, but politics can only unseat you. And Professor Jones is quite right. He came late to the civil rights issue. When he finally got there, it was pretty heroic of him, in the sense that he and Bobby were convinced that pushing for that civil rights bill could cost them the 1964 election.

But he finally saw it as a moral cause and as something he could not ignore. But, through his presidency, he was so focused on the issue of nuclear weapons. He was terrified that he might be the president who would have to pull that nuclear trigger. And he said to somebody during the presidency, “I would rather my kids be red than dead.”

GWEN IFILL: So, William Jones, did it seem at all to people who were pushing domestic issues that the president was distracted by things like nuclear weapons, or Vietnam, or the Bay of Pigs, and was really putting more of his attention on those issues than on issues closer to home?

WILLIAM P. JONES: I think there were a number of issues — ways in which his agenda was divergent from other people who were pushing for him.

He also I think very much was a political actor. And he was responding to polling numbers at the time. And they showed, as Bob mentioned, that his — he was very much at risk for supporting particularly the struggle for racial equality. People thought that he was moving too fast, even as civil rights activists thought he wasn’t moving at all.

And so there were these political calculations that were very important to him, as they are to any president.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, Ellen Fitzpatrick, after — no matter whether people agreed with him, disagreed with him, thought he was too Catholic or too something else, on the day that he was assassinated, the outpouring of grief and the common mourning that you chronicle in your book in the letters that people wrote to his widow was — was pretty much overwhelming.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: It was, and it crossed all ideological lines.

 

There were letters that were written to his widow after his death. She received some 1.5 million messages in the first year-and-a-half after his death. And there were letters from segregationists. There were letters whose — from people who supported his stance on civil rights.

There were people who said they were looking forward to voting against him in 1964. There were people who thought he was equivalent to Lincoln, a great emancipator. But, across all of that spectrum, there was quite a uniform feeling that this was a terrible act, a terrible thing to have happened in the United States of America, and a real, absolute disgust, really, that such a terrible act of violence could have deprived this nation of its elected president.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Minutaglio, did the fact of this assassination, did it change attitude toward him in a place like Dallas, which you — you argue was the center of anti-Kennedy resentment, or was the shame of it happening, to have been the place where this occurred, change Dallas?

BILL MINUTAGLIO: It did change it.

It’s still in the marrow. It’s still in the DNA; 50 years later, people there still feel it. It’s in the shadows. You know, Dallas really wasn’t a city of hate. It was objectified as a city of hate. People talk about it as the city that pulled the trigger that killed our president.

And really what happened in Dallas was that a very distinct, but very powerful minority, people who basically had access to the pulpits, the airwaves, the media, and, frankly, a lot of money were able to form a confederacy that was virulently anti-Kennedy. They attacked him and considered it really a moral crusade.

They were worried about encroaching socialism and, by extension, communism. And as things escalated, particularly in 1963, an amazing year, Dr. Martin Luther King came in January of ’63 to Dallas in a quiet visit, but a bomb threat was posed against him, not to fruition, of course.

That summer, that year, later on in ’63, it just got hotter and hotter and hotter in the city. And in a famous comment, the president said — as he was approaching Dallas, he turned to Jackie and said: “Be prepared. We’re headed into nut country” — N-U-T- — “into nut country.”

And I think he was just unafraid, and certainly not expecting anything even remotely like what happened.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s end where we began with Bob Dallek’s comment about how this holds such a claim on our imagination five decades later.

Why is that?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, the assassination is important here. It was such a blow to this country’s sense of self-esteem, and it gave Dallas, of course — it deepened the sense of alienation towards Dallas.

But the feeling was, this is not what we do in this country. This is not how politics should be conducted. But I think the most important thing is that Kennedy still gives people a kind of hope, a kind of expectation of a better way.

You know, my teacher was a man named Richard Hofstadter, great historian, who once said that America is the only country in history that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT DALLEK: And Kennedy is very much attached to that.

What I think, Gwen, is, 50 years from now, will we be talking about John Kennedy this way anymore? If we get another president who generates a kind of excitement, a kind of hope for us, Kennedy will be eclipsed. But if we keep stumbling along, as we have been, I think Kennedy will continue to have this extraordinary hold.

GWEN IFILL: You have all been great. This is a fascinating conversation.

Thank you very much, William P. Jones, Bill Minutaglio, Ellen Fitzpatrick, and Robert Dallek.