Larry J. Sabato is director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. His latest book is “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.”
Most everyone who was alive on Nov. 22, 1963, remembers where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. JFK was the youngest elected U.S. president and the youngest to die. The fascination with him is never-ending: There have been hundreds of books, TV specials and films about his New Frontier, as well as the enduring controversy surrounding his assassination. Let’s debunk some of the most pervasive myths.
1. The JFK-Nixon TV debates propelled Kennedy to victory.
The four televised debates were the great innovation of the 1960 presidential race, and Sen. Kennedy’s impressive appearance and performance at the first one on Sept. 26 gave his campaign a jolt of energy. But Vice President Richard Nixon stepped up his game in the remaining three, especially the final one on foreign policy, a strength of his.
While polls were much less frequent in 1960 than today, Gallup has enough data to show that the JFK-Nixon matchup was close throughout. From mid-August onward, the candidates were essentially tied, before and after the debates. Any boost Kennedy got from the first debate disappeared before Election Day.
President Dwight Eisenhower, still quite popular, campaigned for Nixon in the race’s final days, contributing to the photo finish in the popular vote: 49.72 percent for Kennedy, 49.55 percent for Nixon; out of about 69 million votes cast, JFK won by about 119,000. Sure, the debates were memorable and precedent-setting, but they barely moved the needle.
2. JFK was a liberal president.
This view is widely held today, both because Kennedy is now associated with the civil rights movement and because his legacy is lumped together with those of his late brothers, the much more liberal Bobby and Ted. (The brothers followed Jack’s moderate lead while he lived, but both became more openly progressive later on.) In reality, JFK was a cautious, conservative chief executive, mindful of his 1964 reelection bid after the squeaker of 1960. He was fiscally conservative, careful about spending and deficits, and sponsored an across-the-board tax cut that became President Ronald Reagan’s model for his 1981 tax cut.
While he was more conciliatory after the Cuban missile crisis, JFK’s early Cold War rhetoric was so hawkish that Reagan and other Republicans later quoted him at every opportunity to buttress their fight against communism. And Kennedy was so hesitant and timid about civil rights that he frustrated the movement’s leaders at virtually every turn until finally articulating a vision for equal rights in June 1963.
3. Kennedy was determined to land Americans on the moon.
That’s how we recall it, because of JFK’s blunt declarations to Congress and the public beginning in May 1961, yet Kennedy actively considered alternatives. He actually wanted to send astronauts to Mars but had to be talked out of it because it was so impractical. Once he lowered his sights to our lunar satellite, Kennedy continued to have doubts because of the cost. “Why should we spend that kind of dough to put a man on the moon?” he asked NASA Administrator James Webb in September 1963.
Kennedy even approached Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev about ending the superpower space race and establishing a Soviet-American partnership for a moon landing. Khrushchev responded favorably, and JFK mentioned it in his fall 1963 speech to the United Nations. His order to NASA to “make it happen” fell by the wayside in the next administration.
4. After the assassination, Lyndon Johnson adhered to JFK’s agenda.
Johnson capitalized on Kennedy’s memory and cited JFK more than 500 times in public speeches, statements and news conferences — more than any other president except Bill Clinton — as he tried to shepherd his own agenda to congressional passage. LBJ sought to out-Kennedy Kennedy.
Take Johnson’s signature project, the War on Poverty. Right before JFK left for Dallas, an aide, Walter Heller, met with the president and proposed a program to combat poverty. Kennedy would consider signing off only on a pilot program in a few cities; he wanted no big-spending, budget-busting welfare subsidies.
Heller met with LBJ the day after the assassination to revisit the issue. Johnson, with his hardscrabble background, loved the idea and immediately countermanded Kennedy’s cautious approach: “That’s my kind of program. It’s a people’s program. . . . Give it the highest priority. Push ahead full tilt.”
The Vietnam War is an even better example. No one knows for sure whether Kennedy would have fully disengaged from Vietnam after his reelection, but almost no one believes that JFK, a wary incrementalist, would have committed 535,000 troops to Southeast Asia as Johnson did.
5. Fifty years later, we know everything we’ll ever know about Kennedy’s assassination.
Even a half-century later, we don’t have the complete story. This is because many government documents remain classified and hidden. Reputable groups and individuals have estimated that there are 1,171 unreleased CIA documents concerning Nov. 22, 1963. The Center for Effective Government has even claimed that there may be more than 1 million unseen CIA records related to Kennedy’s assassination. No one can close the book on this subject without examining them.
The Assassination Records Collection Act, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, requires that all remaining documents about the Kennedy assassination be released by Oct. 26, 2017. The next president will rule on any requests from the CIA and other agencies that materials be withheld or redacted after 2017. Under the law, the president can do so only if there is “identifiable harm to military, defense, intelligence operations, or conduct of foreign relations, and the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
In addition, new technologies applied to hard evidence remaining from Dallas may yield fresh insights and conclusions. Recently, for instance, my research team used advanced audio analysis of a Dallas police recording from Nov. 22 to debunk the conclusion of the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations that the recording proved that there were two shooters in Dealey Plaza.
As Kennedy said only a month before his death, “Science is the most powerful means we have for the unification of knowledge.” The scientific method may be our best hope to answer lingering questions about that awful day in Dallas.