Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which served to solidify him as an icon in American history and to protect him from the criticisms that other presidents often face, according to experts on campus.
Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 22, 1963 during a Dallas parade.
Journalism professor Bill Minutaglio co-authored “Dallas 1963,” which documents the political unrest during Kennedy’s administration. Minutaglio said in the years and months leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, a few small but powerful groups of people held extremist anti-Kennedy views, but many people today want to deny that there was such a high level of anger in the public discourse.
Minutaglio said the majority of people did not hold these extremist views.
“People want to paint Dallas in black and white terms,” Minutaglio said. “There were a lot of people who liked the president and there were a lot of people who disagreed vehemently, but they respected the office.”
Government professor Bruce Buchanan said Dallas still deals with the aftermath of the presidential assassination.
“Dallas is still consumed by [the Kennedy assassination],” Buchanan said. “I’m not sure that it’s fair for [Dallas] to be the city that killed Kennedy.”
Buchanan said like many young people, he liked Kennedy in part because he portrayed the government in a positive way. When Kennedy was assassinated, Buchanan was a college freshman.
“One of the things that it brought to a young person like me is the impermanence of things,” Buchanan said. “Life is fragile.”
History senior lecturer Penne Restad said traumatic events like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and Kennedy’s assassination are secured in people’s minds by families’ stories and images by the media.
“The effects persist and are burnished over time, deeply embedded in our national identity,” Restad said. “I think unless you were watching television or in some ways aware of the day as it happened, it is difficult to understand the profound trauma of Kennedy’s assassination,” Restad said. “We understand it now only as it is reflected in the media. We don’t and cannot experience it as the nation did at the time.”
Buchanan said Kennedy’s multifaceted public image was one reason why the exalted idea of Kennedy has persisted.
“You have this young, handsome president being witty and self-deprecating and charming at press conferences, but then giving speeches that we had better get in bomb shelters because it could be all over,” Buchanan said. “The yin and yang of that psychologically — the emotional roller coaster of that kind of experience — can imprint a president in one’s psyche, especially if that president later goes on to be assassinated.”
According to Buchanan, Kennedy often ranks near Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, but he does not think Kennedy’s merits justify such a high status.
“It indicates the extent to which this experience canonized Kennedy,” Buchanan said. “Most experts would grade Kennedy as a B- or C+ president,”
Buchanan said had Kennedy lived, he probably would have been subject to the disrespect and low approval ratings that second-term presidents often suffer. Kennedy’s assassination turned him into a permanent icon, Buchanan said.
According to Buchanan, Kennedy was president during a time when the U.S. faced some of the most serious dangers the nation has ever faced. He said Kennedy successfully managed the nation’s relationship with the Soviets through peace-seeking efforts while fighting off his own military high command who expected to have a war with them.
“It is striking how high Kennedy still stands in the esteem of Americans who were alive at that time,” Buchanan said.