One of the strangest aspects of the killing of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today is that his death is what cemented his place in history. The most meaningful results of his presidency stemmed not from what he did in the White House, but from what was done to him in Dallas.
What we think of as “The Sixties” did not begin in 1960. When Kennedy was assassinated young men still had short hair. Americans had yet to hear of the Beatles, Haight-Ashbury or “flower power.” Vietnam was in the news but was of little general interest – let alone the divisive issue it would become.
Not only was racial discrimination rampant, in parts of the country, segregation was the law. There were no such things as Medicare or Medicaid.
All that changed with one horrific act. Lee Harvey Oswald did not invent hippies, cause music’s “British invasion” or change hairstyles. Neither tie-dyed shirts nor Nehru jackets can be laid at his feet.
What he did do was instantly elevate Lyndon Baines Johnson to the presidency. And LBJ took office with the wind at his back.
Johnson was a product of the New Deal and a masterful student of Congress. Having grown up amid the endemic poverty of the rural South, his agenda was domestic and social. While his dogged and wrongheaded pursuit of the Vietnam War ultimately destroyed his presidency and forever tarnished his image as president, before that overshadowed everything, he road the wave of public support and goodwill that followed Kennedy’s death to enact a truly transformative agenda.
His first order of business was to pass the civil-rights bill and tax cut Kennedy had been pushing for at the time of his death. Then, after winning the 1964 election in a landslide, Johnson advanced his Great Society initiative, including his “war on poverty.” And in an unusual effort for a southerner of his era, Johnson consistently advocated for racial equality.
What followed was an unprecedented flurry of legislation that changed the nation, much of which is still at work. Consider: the Wilderness Protection Act; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, funding public schools; the Voting Rights Act, which banned literacy tests and other ways to limit African-American voting; Medicare and Medicaid; the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities; the Immigration Act, which did away with discriminatory quotas for ethnic groups. The list could go on with consumer product standards, clean air and water standards, low-income housing, the Head Start and VISTA programs and the Job Corps.
The merits of all those can, of course, be debated, but the fact is that with them Johnson fundamentally altered the United States. Medicare alone was a huge step, one that is now woven inextricably into American society.
Johnson was able to accomplish all that because of Kennedy’s death, and there is no reason to think it all would have happened had he lived. Kennedy was at heart a Cold Warrior and more conservative than Johnson.
Kennedy has remained one of America’s most beloved presidents, but that, too, is as much because of his untimely death as anything else. He was young, good-looking and well-spoken with an elegant wife and an energetic, confident air. And he will always be remembered that way. His death also meant he was never confronted with his errors, his philandering or the truth about Vietnam.
Nobody can know what path this country would have taken had Kennedy lived. Demographics and other factors were also at work. But there is no denying that on Nov. 22, 1963, the nation changed course.