Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address to urge Americans to get on with things
and just change the world already. If popular culture is anything to go by, he made his point and cemented his legacy: to think "JFK" is to think "ask
not what your country can do for you" (along with gimmes like jelly doughnut jokes). However, reaction to the the golden anniversary of
Kennedy's 1961 speech is not all positive. While some celebrate the enduring impact of the dramatic address, others are less enthusiastic about the Kennedy legacy. Is the Camelot gleam wearing off?
- To Be Sure, JFK Still Has His Fans Time's Joe Klein recalled the 1961 speech that fueled a generation with cinematic detail:
was 14 years old and watched it on television (black and white,
naturally). It was a freezing day, blindingly white snow--Robert Frost
couldn't read his poem because of the glare. There were puffs of vapor
with every exhale, as John F. Kennedy gave me, and my generation, our
marching orders. The immediate burst of energy, of idealism, of high
style, culture and intellectuality--the celebration of intellectuality
as opposed to today's celebration of ignorance--was intoxicating. I
became, as did so many others, a Kennedy obsessive.
- How Kennedy's Speech Changed People NPR's Nathan Rott also delivers positive reminiscences of 1961. He highlights personal stories like those of Donna Shalala who, decades before becoming Bill Clinton's
secretary of Health and Human Services in the 90s pulled up stakes and
headed to southern Iran.
"I could go to graduate school, I could go to law school," she says.
"Before I heard the speech I was thinking of being a journalist, a war
correspondent as a matter of fact." But Kennedy's speech changed all
She remembers feeling like Kennedy wasn't addressing the
nation, he was addressing her. And "he was talking about public
service," she says.
She'd never considered public service until that day, until his words hit her "like a splash of water," as she puts it.
- But Not Everyone’s Drinking the Kool-Aid Salon’s Robert Dallek gets right to the point and says Kennedy’s legacy is overblown and unwarranted:
great mystery is why Kennedy, who served for only a thousand days and
failed to persuade the Congress to pass any of his major domestic
initiatives on taxes, civil rights, health insurance for seniors, and
aid to education, enjoys such extraordinary public regard. True, his
brilliant handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved the greatest
Soviet-American confrontation threatening a nuclear disaster in the
45-year history of the Cold War. Moreover, his negotiation of a nuclear
test ban in the atmosphere was a giant step forward in limiting the arms
race. But his failed assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuban government at the
Bay of Pigs and his expansion of the U.S. military’s advisory role in
Vietnam and the toppling of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, which many see
as the preludes to Johnson’s war, add to the puzzle about Kennedy’s
- Legacy a Burden, Not a Beacon National Review's Conrad Black offers a near blow-by-blow accounting of Eisenhower’s triumphs before he
even gets to the problems of Kennedy's legacy:
that confident noon 50 years ago, he spoke of being prepared “to bear
any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to advance the cause of
freedom. It was the abandonment of Eisenhower’s relatively low-cost
“more bang for the buck” massive-retaliation approach — “brinkmanship,”
as it had been called. We would now signal a preparedness to be
mouse-trapped into sundry overseas engagements, without necessarily
having clear exit strategies. Kennedy rushed into the harebrained Bay of
Pigs fiasco in Cuba, which General Eisenhower had avoided for reasons
of both military unfeasibility and international law. . . .
Unfortunately, the myth-making about the Cuban Missile Crisis enabled
the Kennedy entourage to believe that they had developed a new and
infallible method of Harvard-based, critical-path crisis management.