Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. There has been something on my mind about it, but it seemed wrong to bring it up—even though it isn’t disrespectful. Obviously, the murder of Kennedy was a great tragedy—for those who knew him and more generally for the country. But in the long term, I think his death was helpful. In particular, it’s not at all clear to me that he would have been able to get the Voting Rights Act passed.
The way I look at it, Johnson pushed it because he knew it was an important issue to Kennedy. But instead of the push coming from a northeastern liberal, it came from a Texan—a conservative Democrat. That alone gave the bill more credibility. What’s more, Johnson used the memory of Kennedy to push for the bill. There is nothing like a tragic death to get people to do what is right for a change.
There is more to this. If it weren’t for the Vietnam War, Johnson would be as great a liberal hero as FDR is. His domestic accomplishments are, if anything, greater than those of FDR. But I wouldn’t ever have guessed that he would have been such a great liberal president. And I doubt that he would have predicted it either. In his State of the Union address in 1964, he said, “Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right.” And that is exactly what he did.
So in this way, Johnson’s legacy is Kennedy’s. I don’t mean to suggest that Johnson was a greater steward of the legacy than Kennedy would have been. They each had their talents. But the assassination of a beloved president provides real political power. No one wanted to dishonor his memory and part of that was supporting his policies. Even as bad as things are today, had Obama been assassinated in November of 2010, I doubt that the Republicans would have kept up their unreasonable opposition to Obamacare. Even they have a great sense of honor than that.
Maybe all I’m saying is that I’m an optimist who wants to see things in the best possible light. It is certainly true that I want to see Kennedy’s assassination in a way that makes it more meaningful. I think that’s what behind all the conspiracy theories. People don’t want to believe that such tragedy could be caused by just one unstable man with a riffle and three bullets. Unfortunately, tragedy is often that easy or easier. But we move on and hopefully our tragedies make us stronger as we move into the future. I think that was the case with the assassination of John F Kennedy.