Presidential legacies are defining aspects of our American story. The 43 men who have laid claim to the presidency remain fixed as permanent characters animating public memory and shaping our collective consciousness. From the perspective of history, some are treated more kindly than others. And whether fair or not, each bears the burden of comparative judgment — never fully able to escape consideration through the lens of their peers. Ultimately, it falls to us, their living heirs, to wring meaning, pass judgment and learn the lessons of their times as we seek to shape our own. This week in American history we pause to consider the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the legacy of a president who remains one of the nation’s most beloved chief executives.
The Kennedy administration was one of our shortest presidencies, lasting little more than a thousand days. Yet the memories of its words, images, and events appear, even today, as if they must have lasted for more than just a brief moment. Soaring oratory, iconic images of a telegenic and seemingly vigorous young president, and a series of catalytic events, culminating in the national trauma of Dealey Plaza provide a reservoir of mnemonic resonance. Indeed, 50 years later, the Kennedy presidency remains very much alive, even for those of us who have no living memory of it. For several years after the assassination, the raw materials of national memory were painstakingly burnished by a loyal coterie of onetime associates and admirers. Their number includes Mrs. Kennedy herself, who so delicately, yet deliberately and explicitly fused the Camelot myth with the Kennedy White House in her famous interview with Life magazine just days after her husband’s assassination.
At the same time, the Kennedy mystique and poll-tested evidence of the president’s enduring popularity have not materialized without detractors. Over the years a variety of counter narratives have emerged to present unflattering portraits of a weak and inept presidency recovered more in memory than accomplishment. From a gridlocked legislative agenda and the brink of nuclear Armageddon during the missile crisis in Cuba to the seeds of military escalation in Vietnam, deliberate foot-dragging on civil rights and revelations about ill health and infidelity, the Kennedy legacy has been contested on many fronts. Regardless of their veracity, however, such accountings have done little to unseat the general presumption in favor of a positive legacy.
Ultimately, the battle for a presidency’s historic balance sheet is as much a part of anniversary celebrations and biographical tomes as it is a preoccupation of the office holders themselves. It is not hard to imagine that the very characteristics that compel an individual to seek the presidency are consonant with their aspirations for ordination in granite and bronze. Kennedy, according to many accounts, including those of his wife, Jackie, was obsessed with history’s judgment. He aspired to be counted among the nation’s greatest presidents.
With such ambitions, it is not surprising that Kennedy would seize the opening act of his presidency — his inaugural address — as a site where words, time, and place converge to form the foundation of memory’s mystic chords. With electoral victory in hand, Kennedy instructed Ted Sorenson, his intrepid counselor, to study previous presidential addresses in preparation for his inaugural debut. In particular, Kennedy is said to have singled out Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for special examination in order to unlock its “secrets.” As Sorenson would later write, it was Lincoln’s use of one and two syllable words that was the genius of the Gettysburg Address — a tactic very much on display in Kennedy’s inaugural address. Whatever the wisdom divined through careful study of Lincoln’s immortal words delivered on the rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania farmland, there is little doubt that Kennedy’s address soared. Remembered for its famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” it is widely regarded as the measure against which all subsequent inaugural addresses are judged.
Like many presidents before and since, Lincoln was a source of considerable fascination and interest for Kennedy. But Lincoln’s shadow extended far beyond the physical and symbolic spaces that all presidents navigate during their time in office. In many ways, the Lincoln legacy was more alive during the Kennedy White House than at any other point in the preceding century. The daily conjurings of the Civil War’s centennial made Lincoln an inescapable reality for the Kennedy presidency. Perhaps weary of the burden of history’s attachments, Kennedy once asked a celebrated Lincoln scholar “If Lincoln had lived, would his reputation be as great as it currently is in the United States?” After some lively prognostication, it is said that the two agreed that Lincoln’s stature may have been shortened by history’s eye had his martyrdom been replaced by the burden of postwar reconstruction. Little did Kennedy know that his was a question that would trail his own presidency. Yet the connection between Kennedy and Lincoln goes beyond historical speculation, united as they are in the circumstances of their deaths. This is so because the marking of the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is never far removed from the other date in American history that we celebrate this week — the anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of a “few brief remarks” at the Gettysburg dedication.
And so, as we pause to consider the Kennedy legacy in the coming days, I will be thinking about both President Kennedy and President Lincoln. However, my time in thought will not be spent dwelling on what was or what might have been. Instead, I will consider how a president’s words are their legacies, gifts bequeathed to us for use in our times. Together with the college students I am privileged to teach, we will take the opportunity of this week’s anniversary moment to read aloud these fragments of American Scripture. We will begin by offering our own oral interpretations of each one of Lincoln’s 272 words, pausing to marvel at how an orator’s sleight of hand could take the preamble to a writ of secession and recast its self-evident proposition as founding creed. We will then turn to Kennedy’s inaugural address to consider how the simple inversion of “don’t ask” became a clarion call to service and citizenship — one that echoes still today. And then, when we are finished speaking their words, we will put these two presidents in conversation, asking what value their words have for us today.
Anniversaries create moments of opportunity. At times like these, when some have wondered whether the deliberative experiment of our founding is still viable and elected officials no longer seem up to inhabiting the mythical spaces that we afford them, we often turn to the rhetorical legacies of leaders past to help us along. In the end, perhaps the question of a presidential legacy reveals as much about us and our hopes and fears, as it does about them. Though their presidencies were incomplete, Kennedy and Lincoln are, for this week at least, the presidents we need them to be.