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End of a dream

Gero Schließ, Washington / cmkNovember 21, 2013

JFK's aura lingers while his political achievements have fallen by the wayside - according to prevailing opinion. Much was left undone in the 1,036 days of his presidency. But how does the US view JFK today?

Poster of JFK Fotograf: Gero Schließ, DW, Dallas, Nov. 2013
Image: DW/G. Schließ

At first glance, it's a fairly sober assessment. Many of John F. Kennedy's plans as president failed to get off the ground, projects like civil rights legislation, which his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, eventually implemented or the disastrous Vietnam War, which Kennedy dramatically expanded before speaking of scaling back US involvement shortly before his death.

But do people in Washington today remember Kennedy only as a mediocre, or even a bad president? On the contrary.

"Kennedy gave all of America a great deal of hope. He opened our eyes to the possibility that things are going to get better, rather than worse. That sense of optimism, that sense of opening America to new adventures, I thought that was his lasting legacy," said Marvin Kalb, of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "I wish that we could see much more of that today."

'For one brief moment, it was Camelot'

Even the biggest skeptics aren't able to escape the fantasy of 'what if,' which has made him so attractive to generations of admirers. That's the feeling of Kristin Donowan, who took part in a recent remembrance event for Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, where 50 years ago the president's funeral mass was held.

JFK poster in front of church Fotograf: Gero Schließ, DW, Dallas, Nov. 2013
Fifty years on, Kennedy's aura and mystique have left an indelible stamp on the US.Image: DW/G. Schließ

Donowan recalls that the early 1960s were a bright, inspiring time of new beginnings with the young president and his fairy tale family. "For one brief moment, it was Camelot. It was a wonderful time in our history. His death traumatized the entire nation. People sat for hours and hours and watched TV. The churches were overcrowded," she told DW.

Andrew Craft, who came with his friends to the remembrance concert, is too young to have experienced Kennedy's presidency. Nevertheless, he's clearly a fan.

"Personally, he's been kind of an icon for me, one of my favorite presidents. He's just a role model to look up to," said Craft.

An older gentleman tries to explain his own admiration. "[Kennedy] has become more of a symbol, rather than being remembered for what he actually accomplished. For me, a young man just out of college, that symbol was amazing. He was an inspiration as we left the conservative era of the '50s behind. The times were changing and he represented us."


Dr. Ronald Jones was at the Parkland Hospital in Dallas when Kennedy was brought in on a stretcher after the shooting, and as chief resident gave him first aid. He was only five years out of medical school.

"I was sitting in the cafeteria after having finished a surgical procedure," said Jones, who remembers all of sudden hearing the operator begin to page every available doctor. He then went to the telephone on the wall in the cafeteria and called the operator, asking what the urgency was.

"She said, 'Dr. Jones, the president's been shot and they're bringing him to the emergency room, and they need physicians right away,'" he recalled.

Dr. Ronald Jones Fotograf: Gero Schließ, DW, Dallas, Nov. 2013
Dr. Ronald Jones was the first physician to treat JFK in hospitalImage: DW/G. Schließ

Jones has told the story many times. But when he comes to the point where he and his colleagues realized that after more than eight minutes of resuscitation attempts, they had to pronounce the president as dead, his voice still shakes. Even half a century later, the experience has clearly left a mark, as it did with all the doctors at Parkland Hospital, the people of the US and around the world, and especially Jacqueline Kennedy and her family.

"We all recognized the fact that he was dead," continued Jones. "And I think Mrs. Kennedy did as well. She may have recognized that he was either dead or dying as soon as he arrived at Parkland Hospital, because she had been holding him in her lap in the limo all the way out."

Political legacy

What remains from Kennedy's short time in office as the youngest elected president in America's history? Does his unfulfilled promise weigh on the future?

After all, Kennedy prevailed in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union, demonstrating leadership and assertiveness. Kennedy himself saw his nuclear testing ban treaty with the Soviet Union as a far greater success.

According to Kalb, Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the subsequent nuclear treaty, paved the way for a new political attitude that has shaped US foreign policy to this day.

"He left a legacy that made both sides understand that even though they had enormous differences, there was a way of reconciling their differences. And that set a kind of precedent for both superpowers," said Kalb. Even today, President Barack Obama continues to follow Kennedy's line of thinking, outlining his nuclear disarmament vision in a speech earlier this year in Berlin.

Kennedy's focus on citizen participation and social activism also continues to inspire people, said Stephen Fagin, the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the site of the assassination. He said the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement of the last few years all link back to Kennedy. "We had demonstrations here in Dealey Plaza, young demonstrators with no memories of 1963, holding up signs with Kennedy quotes," he said.

JFK Kennedy Memorial in Dallas Fotograf: Gero Schließ, DW, Dallas, Nov. 2013
Historians are divided on JFK's political legacyImage: DW/G. Schließ

A draw for tourists, school trips

More than 340,000 people visit the permanent exhibition at the Sixth Floor Museum every year. Here, from a window on the sixth floor, Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shots. Countless photos meticulously depict the course of events, from the president's arrival in Dallas up to the motorcade's frenzied journey to Parkland Hospital.

In their new book, "Dallas 1963," Steven Davis and Bill Minutaglio touch a sore spot in the history of a radicalized city and a country that was torn apart. "Dallas was known across the United States as being the most hostile, extreme anti-Kennedy place in the country," Davis told DW.

"There was a lot of violence and angry rhetoric on the day that Kennedy came to town. There were thousands of flyers that showed Kennedy's face like a police mug shot with the headline, 'Wanted for Treason.'"

A country torn apart - then and now

In 1963, Dallas and Texas were far from the heartland of Kennedy's democratic party - and not much has changed today. Ahead of the Kennedy's visit, the publishers of the city's largest newspaper denigrated the president by calling him a Communist, and a Dallas congressman called him a traitor. The debate over Kennedy's nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union had left its mark.

At that time, the division of the country was based in geography. Today, however, it's rather social in nature, between rich and poor.

"In Dallas, what you saw is what you see in America today, with Obama," said Davis. "You see people who define their political opponents not just as an opponent politically, but as an enemy of the state. Kennedy was seen as a traitor to America by these people. There was a lot violent rhetoric saying that he should be subject to the death penalty for what he was doing. That's really the mark of a totalitarian society, when people talk like that."