American political geography forever changed Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Before the gunshots in Dealey Plaza, politicians were allowed more leeway by both the media and the public. Twelve evasive presidential years of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War and Watergate and a culture of secrecy corroded that trust.
Kennedy’s successes included a rousing speech with an ambitious goal to send an American safely to the moon by 1970 (it happened on July 20, 1969). His inauguration included the often quoted: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
But there were failures too. Early in his presidency, Kennedy approved the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but it failed spectacularly. A little over a year later, Kennedy navigated the country back from the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
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There is a memorable photo taken just after the Bay of Pigs failure. The presidency was shaken, and Kennedy sought advice.
The image shows Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower walking away from the photographer, heads bowed deep in conversation. They are at Camp David. Eisenhower holds a fedora behind him, Kennedy is hat-less (Kennedy started the hat-less trend followed by all but one president since).
Both men had served in World War II. Gen. Eisenhower had the considerably larger responsibility planning the D-Day invasion and commanding Allied Western European forces to the defeat of Germany. Kennedy had commanded a patrol torpedo boat in the Pacific.
But despite being from different generations, backgrounds and political parties, they shared an understanding. Eisenhower questioned, then chastised, the younger commander in chief.
I believe there is only one thing to do when you get into this kind of thing — it must be a success.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
According to Eisenhower’s meeting notes, he asked the President: “How could you have possibly kept from the world any knowledge that the United States was involved? I believe there is only one thing to do when you get into this kind of thing — it must be a success.”
The willingness to share and learn from hard-earned wisdom across party lines seems unimaginable now.
On the 25th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, then Telegram-Tribune city editor Jeff Fairbanks wrote the following column that could apply today.
Government has changed since JFK
The legacy of Kennedy isn’t of Camelot lost.
It’s not that he may have ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam before the quagmire or that he could have forestalled America’s economic decline.
He couldn’t be as good as his worshippers portray him.
What Lee Harvey Oswald killed when he assassinated President John F. Kennedy two decades ago was a style of government.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy
Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent slaying of Oswald himself conditioned the nation to an angrier outlook.
The unthinkable became commonplace: the assassinations five years later of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy who was running for president.
Add Gov. George Wallace, also running for president; two assassination tries on President Gerald Ford; the wounding of President Ronald Reagan. Even sideshow personalities such as pornography mogul Larry Flynt have become targets.
Politics Americana changed: Gone is the politician “working the crowd.”
It has been replaced by candidates perspiring in bulletproof vests, carefully arranged “media events” and slick but vapid advertising: “Re-elect the President,” “Nixon’s the one,” “Reagan Country.”
Others are not worth remembering.
Candidates fly from staged events to controlled press conferences. The artificiality of the campaign is continued with “press aides” interpreting the day-before mistakes of candidates.
News stories are written about polls that have such a large margin of error that it’s impossible to pin down a winner.
Politicians talk in such vacuous terms that television and newspaper commentators have become almost like their counterparts in Moscow: Looking for what’s not said in statements rather than what was said.
It is this paranoia and secrecy of closed government that spawned Watergate. It was born after Kennedy’s assassination and nurtured during the Vietnam War.
The real legacy of Kennedy’s death is not that a vibrant man died, but that a fringe of society is calling the shots in politics: The nation as a whole has been cheated and we’re all poorer because of it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.