John F Kennedy – the ‘what if?’ American president

Last summer, I was at the City Lit in London to attend a course on post-war American presidents. I wrote blog postings on each of the presidents we discussed:

  • Lyndon B Johnson – my blog posting here
  • Richard M Nixon – my blog posting here
  • Gerald Ford – my blog posting here
  • Jimmy Carter – my blog posting here
  • Ronald Reagan – my blog posting here
  • George H W Bush – my blog posting here
  • Bill Clinton – my blog posting here

This week, I was back at the City Lit for a lecture on a president that I missed in last year’s course: the one before Johnson, the one who was assassinated in office, the charismatic John F Kennedy. The lecture was given by Mark Malcomson who is in fact the college’s principal. He is incredibly knowledgeable about American politics and a very fluent presenter.

JFK was the third of nine children – the older two died in aircraft incidents – and he suffered from ill-health all his life (especially back problems) so, in some respects, he was a very unlikely president. In 1946, he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in South Boston in a year when there was a Republican landslide nationally. Similarly, in 1952, he was elected to the Senate for Massachusetts in spite of another Republication landslide nationally. His service in Congress was undistinguished.

But JFK’s election as president in 1960 was truly historic. At the age of 43, he was the youngest elected president in US history ((Teddy Roosevelt was a year younger when became president following an assassination). As a Catholic, he was the first (and so far the only) non-Protestant to become president. His victory was achieved by a mere 0.3% of the popular vote (although he had a easy majority in the Electoral College).

JFK’s presidency started disastrously just three months into his term with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba, but Kennedy accepted responsibility for the operation planned by the previous administration. The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 – the ‘Thirteen Days’ – was his finest moment, but his speech in Berlin (following the construction of the wall) in  June 1963 further enhanced his reputation.  Yet he did little to advance the civil rights agenda and managed no significant legislative achievements.

The assassination of John Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963 is seared on the memory of just about everyone alive at the time ( I was 15 and remember it well).  He would certainly have won the presidential election of 1964, so inevitably his death has constantly invited speculation of what might have happened had he not been assassinated.

Our lecturer Mark Malcomson concluded his presentation by running through some of the possible scenarios.  Johnson only became president because of JFK’s death; Nixon became president because Johnson did not run for a second term; Ford only became president because of Nixon’s resignation … so, had JFK lived, subsequent presidencies would probably have been very different. One fanciful scenario sees John Kennedy serving two terms, followed Robert Kennedy doing his two terms, and then Ted Kennedy winning his two terms to make 24 years of Kennedys in the White House.

On the basis of less fanciful speculation, we might have seen no substantial increase in US involvement in Vietnam and a de-escalation of the Cold War. On the other hand, we might have seen no real progress on the civil rights front and certainly no Great Society (Johnson’s initiative) which would probably have led to earlier and worse violence from the black communities.

If JFK had continued in office for another five years, would the media have exposed his serious ill-health and/or his rampant adultery? And, even if they had not, would Addison’s disease have killed him in office?

You can read more about John Kennedy here.

One Comment

  • Elaine Disch

    I have read your Kennedy blog – fascinating! I was 32 and it was the first election we Dems won since I began voting. My friends and I were heart-broken at the death of such a promising young man.

    Of course we have learned since that he had feet of clay like so many of our heros. It does make one wonder what would have happened had he lived and had a second term, would Bobby and Teddy have followed him or would Bobby have been assassinated in CA when he was running?

    Would the civil rights legislation have been pushed through – I have read that Johnson has the credit but it was wonderful Hubert Humphrey who made it happen. Would JFK become the liberal we thought he was, coming into his own during a second term as I see Obama doing now?

    It is too bad that one can not have a crystal ball that would show what might have been!


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