Despite the passage of time, President John F. Kennedy — both reality and myth — remains a big part of our national and political culture.
On Nov. 22, 1963, reverberations from the outrage in Dealey Plaza in Dallas shook the world.
President Kennedy — young, handsome, dynamic — was murdered, and the course of history took a far different path. Five decades later, people still struggle with what Kennedy's death meant to them, to his country and to the world.
That question offers nothing but a void, and many people fill that space with their yearnings for what might have been based on the image of Camelot, an almost utopian view of a time that never was and never will be.
Real life is far messier. Still, with the benefit of wishful thinking and hindsight, it's difficult not to think things would have been far different.
Some pundits say President Kennedy, unlike his successor, never would have involved this country so deeply in Vietnam.
Some say that a time of innocence would not have been swallowed up by war, riots in the streets and social turmoil that tore families and communities apart.
Some say this country would have been spared much of the grief it subsequently endured if Kennedy had lived.
Those are pleasant thoughts. But all that people really know for sure is that JFK's truncated presidency represents possibilities — both good and bad — unfulfilled. How they would have been fulfilled is unknowable, but his three years in office were strife-filled.
During his brief tenure, President Kennedy built a mixed record. He presided over a botched invasion of Cuba, masterfully negotiated a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis and set the stage for deep American involvement in the war in Vietnam. His legislative agenda, which included civil rights legislation and tax cuts, was stalled in Congress, enacted only after Kennedy's death through the greater legislative legerdemain of President Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy, a Cold Warrior in the tradition of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, had no illusions about the menace to freedom posed by the Soviet Union, even as he worked to maintain peace and lower tensions in flash-points like Berlin.
Some have argued that the pre-assassination period was a time of innocence, and the period after a time of innocence lost. Facts do not support that claim. This country was less than 20 years past a horrific world war and a more limited military conflict in Korea, a bitter Cold War that threatened nuclear annihilation was an accepted fact of life and the civil rights revolution was taking flight amid sickening violence and in the segregated South. Popular television shows may have portrayed a benign view of life, but real world offered few illusions.
Perhaps the biggest illusion was President Kennedy himself. A gifted and immensely charming man, he was neither the model husband nor deeply religious man that he portrayed. Had his reckless conduct been exposed, it would have jeopardized his presidency.
Though he was presented as the epitome of good health and vitality, historians have revealed that he suffered from a variety of ailments that caused him deep physical pain and threatened to shorten his life. He eased his health woes with regular injections of amphetamines and other drugs.
As a result of meticulously managed political stagecraft, there was much about Kennedy that was not known, while much that was known about him was not true.
But there is no doubt that he was a much-loved president who cut an impressive figure and had a beautiful family. He made many people feel good about their country, and his call for a new patriotism — "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" — appealed to the highest ideals of Americans, particularly the young.
That Kennedy was taken from us in such a cruel, lawless fashion was an assault not just on one man and his family but on the democratic process that is the envy of the world. That his death occurred in the television age in which everyone could see and suffer together made it a wound from which America has yet to fully recover.