Washington (AFP) – John F. Kennedy remains a martyred symbol of poetic political possibility 50 years after his assassination, but history may ultimately deliver an unsparing verdict on his unfulfilled White House legacy.
So shocking was the daylight murder of the charismatic 35th U.S. president, that people the world over remember where they were when they learned he was gone, on November 22, 1963, aged just 46.
Events marking the half century anniversary of his death are throwing fresh scrutiny on Kennedy’s lasting impact, as a leader and political icon whose star burned bright as the Swinging Sixties swept away a gray post-war world.
Kennedy emerged as a torchbearer of change with his election in 1960, and for the baby boom generation, his presidency is remembered wistfully as a time of hope, suddenly extinguished.
Unlike those whom he enlisted in a cause to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country, Kennedy did not grow old, so lives on in the mind, suspended in perpetual youth.
For many, he remains the dashing World War II hero, the campaigner with a toothy grin, the doting father with an impossibly glamorous wife, or the statesman who shepherded the world back from the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nearly two decades of failed or scandal-tainted presidencies after his death helped enshrine JFK as a symbol of the lost nobility of a politics that aimed at lofty goals — like putting a man on the Moon — “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Subsequent American generations came to know Kennedy through carefully crafted images, and sympathetic histories written by the courtiers of Camelot.
But his legend has also been embroidered by revelations of womanizing, exposes on the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and disclosures about the fragile health of a man presented as the epitome of youth.
Rampant conspiracy theories over whether assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone meanwhile leave a suspicion that Kennedy is remembered as much for the horrific manner of his death and subsequent public trauma, than for what he did while alive.
Historian Leonard Steinhorn, who teaches courses on Kennedy’s legacy at American University, said JFK will be remembered for first recognizing, then mastering the power of television.
“Since we have not yet graduated from that age, he still serves as the model for a degree of charisma, presence and leadership that we expect from our presidents these days,” Steinhorn said.