While John Kennedy’s assassination continues to provoke doubting conjectures and conspiracy scenarios, the murder also evokes more down-to-earth questions about the potential destiny of the Kennedy presidency.
JFK had traveled to Texas 60 years ago with politics on his mind. He hoped his visit would help shore up Lone Star support for his 1964 reelection bid.
In his 1960 campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, the Massachusetts senator — along with running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas senator — took the state by just 46,257 votes out of 2,288,877 cast.
Could Kennedy look forward to winning Texas and its bounty of 25 electoral votes the next year? Would Johnson, who accompanied the president on the trip, remain on the Democratic ticket?
The political ground had decidedly shifted during the previous six months, especially in the South, where violence marred many demonstrations and protests for racial equality. On June 11, JFK took a stand and used an Oval Office address broadcast on all the networks to propose a civil rights bill. The legislation sought an end to segregation in public facilities and education as well as protection of the right to vote.
Particularly below the Mason-Dixon Line, what Kennedy advocated was met with staunch criticism, if not disdain. His approval rating, as measured by Gallup, plummeted from 74 percent early in 1963 — in the wake of his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 — to 56 percent that September. The drop became a flashing warning sign to JFK and his political brain trust.
Johnson was selected as the vice-presidential candidate at the 1960 Democratic National Convention for balance. As a Southerner and someone nearly a decade older than the 43-year-old JFK, he broadened the ticket’s appeal and helped blunt the anti-Catholic animosity directed at Kennedy.
The trouble, however, was that high-level members of the administration didn’t respect or even like Johnson. Behind his back, according to LBJ’s intrepid biographer Robert Caro, the towering and imposing vice president was known as “Rufus Cornpone.”
If we are to believe Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s longtime secretary, Johnson was going to be dumped for the 1964 race. Describing a conversation with Kennedy three days before Dallas, she reported (in the memoir Kennedy and Johnson) that the president was seriously considering embarking on the campaign with someone else.
“At this time, I am thinking about Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina,” he supposedly told her. “But it will not be Lyndon."
Looking beyond political questions, what about some of the major policy issues facing JFK?
Congressional opposition to the civil rights bill was strong among traditionally loyal Southern Democrats, which affected and, indeed, stalled much of the administration’s domestic agenda. By the time of the Texas trip, there was little progress with the proposed rights act.
It wasn’t until after the assassination that Johnson framed the legislation as a testimonial statute to honor Kennedy. The new president applied his well-known and formidable personal pressure on many members of Congress to turn the bill into law. For the final votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Republicans provided substantial bipartisan support.
During his last months, JFK also conducted a campaign of rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy had searched for ways to make the Cold War less frigidly threatening.
In a commencement address at American University on June 10, he put the weight of the presidency behind a nuclear test ban treaty, the first pact of its kind. Four months later, on October 7, he signed the Senate-ratified treaty “banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water.”
Kennedy’s chief speechwriter Theodore Sorensen subsequently noted, “No other single accomplishment in the White House ever gave him greater satisfaction.” Whether JFK could have reached détente with the Soviet Union before Nixon achieved it during his first years as president (after winning the 1968 election) is a great unknown.
Following what Kennedy considered a disastrous summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June of 1961 — privately JFK said his Russian counterpart “just beat the hell out of me” — the two superpower leaders developed a working relationship that included a new hotline between Washington and Moscow. Would they have tried to conduct more diplomacy to reduce the arms race and the climate of hostility between the two countries?
Possibly the most important question, had JFK continued as president, is: What would Kennedy have decided to do in Vietnam? He had approved a huge increase in American military advisers from 800, when his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office, to an eye-bulging 16,000. He also assented to a military coup in 1963 to remove Ngo Dinh Diem as president of South Vietnam.
The coup took place on November 1 and a day later the roundly unpopular Diem was brutally murdered. In the last days of his life, Kennedy was uncertain what to do, and on November 21, the day he left for Texas, he ordered a top-down review of options for Vietnam.
None of us will ever know whether JFK would have expanded U.S. involvement or decided to withdraw. He definitely didn’t want Republicans in the ’64 campaign to label him as a quitter or loser in a conflict against Communist forces in Southeast Asia.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., served as a special assistant to Kennedy and wrote A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which won a Pulitzer Prize. In the chapter “Autumn 1963,” he recalled seeing the president after the coup and the slaying of Diem.
“He was somber and shaken,” Schlesinger commented. “I had not seen him so depressed since the Bay of Pigs [the ill-fated invasion of Cuba in 1961]. No doubt he realized that Vietnam was his great failure in foreign policy, and that he had never really given it his full attention.”
During Kennedy’s nearly three years in the White House, he recorded the highest public approval average since Gallup began charting opinion about a president in the 1940s. His mark of 70.1 percent who approved came at a time when three-quarters of America trusted Washington to do what was right, a far cry from today when, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, just 16 percent hold that view.
Interestingly, the public’s admiration for JFK has swelled over time. Earlier this year, Gallup conducted an opinion survey to measure “retrospective approval” of former presidents. Kennedy received a stunning 90 percent approval. The lowest — at 32 percent — was Nixon.
What makes JFK’s percentage unique is that he scored similar approval marks from both Democrats and Republicans, a noteworthy feat given the current political environment with its extreme partisanship and polarization.
Kennedy’s assassination six decades ago continues to prompt a panoply of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. Some analysts at the time and subsequently have labeled the murder the end of American innocence.
After the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, three earlier presidential assassinations, and several years of the Civil Rights Movement, the nation wasn’t exactly populated by a callow citizenry.
Yet what was lost that dark Friday in Dallas was a collective optimism about America’s future that a youthful president kept bringing to life in inspiring and enduring ways.
Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. He’s the author of several books, most recently The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from the New Deal to the Present (published by Notre Dame Press).