The nation this week commemorated the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton laid a wreath near the eternal flame that marks Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Flags flew at half-mast in cities across the country, while thousands gathered in Dallas to attend a memorial event in Dealey Plaza, the city park where Kennedy was killed by a sniper’s bullet on Nov. 22, 1963. A Gallup poll showed that Americans still rate Kennedy as the best president since World War II, with 74 percent saying he was an outstanding or above average leader.
Kennedy’s legacy has “weathered half a century of assaults,” said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. Historians rank him as an overrated president who couldn’t pass key legislative initiatives, escalated the conflict in Vietnam, and recklessly engaged in relentless womanizing. “But that’s not how Americans see it.” They remember him still as the youthful charmer who turned the White House into an idealistic “Camelot’’ and fluently spoke the “stirring language of destiny and determination.”
Kennedy’s legacy rests primarily on posthumous mythmaking, said William Prochnau in Reuters.com. After his death, Kennedy’s many admirers made Camelot the “romantic theme” of his presidency. Various conspiracy theories endure (see Talking points), and the story has become a “Shakespearean tragedy”—a young nobleman cut down at his empire’s prime by “powerful and shady characters” who prevent the truth about his death from ever coming out.
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Americans still revere Kennedy for a deeper reason, said Alan Brinkley in TheAtlantic.com. He “remains a powerful symbol of a lost moment.” The early 1960s was a time of great optimism, when the horrors of world war had faded, America was strong and confident, and belief in our grand national project had not yet been jaded by Vietnam, racial conflict, other assassinations, and Watergate. Kennedy embodies an era, never to be seen again, “when the nation’s capacities looked limitless.”
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