By Mick Krever, CNN
Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy’s murder, we are still obsessed with the young leader, and it’s no wonder, says historian Simon Schama.
“Even though John Kennedy was the ultimate political animal, like his brother and his father, we somehow felt that he was a richly complete human being,” Schama, who was 18 when Kennedy was gunned down, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.
“As Jackie said, actually, partly about the complications of their married life: He was it all, because he wanted to live it all, and that projected itself right around the world.”
“So we are quite rightly obsessed with that rare and charismatic personality,” Schama said.
Kennedy, Schama contended, seemed to have the complete package.
“You have, one, a sense of a kind of bravery that inhabited the whole personality, with its pros and cons,” Schama said. “On the other hand, you had the solid, certainly unsexy stuff of which historical achievement is made.”
“It’s what people desperately want, still, from their president in the United States – a sort of sense of confident self-definition.”
Kennedy’s confidence was at the fore during the Cuban Missile Crisis – the near avoidance of nuclear holocaust that most historians, including Schama, agree was his greatest achievement.
“There were two things going on in Jack Kennedy’s personality, and that of some of the people around him,” Schama said.
“He was actually brave enough to push it far enough that it was possible that Khrushchev would do what he did,” which was put nuclear armed-missiles in Cuba, ready to fire at the United States. “But also that [Kennedy] was not, unlike some of the chiefs of staff, essentially someone who believed you could survive nuclear war.”
Getting so close to nuclear war, and then being able to avert it, is something no one since has had to face, said Schama.
Despite the enormous impression he has left on the American psyche, President Kennedy was in office less than three years, and historians are forced into endless speculation about what the young president would have done had he lived.
Much of that speculation focusses on civil rights movement, which at the time was building momentum for change.
“He was a Boston democrat,” Schama said. “And Boston wasn’t a place then where you were likely to be out there marching with Martin Luther King and the rest of them.”
He wasn’t “in any sense a racist,” it was just “a mess which he wanted to go away.”
But he realized that to correct the segregation, the voting discrimination, and the repugnant treatment of blacks especially in the American south, the government had to step in.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” Kennedy said in an address to the nation on June 11, 1963, four months before his death. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”
It was Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who would ultimately get civil rights reforms passed. But it would not have happened, Schama contended, without JFK.
“Americans want to hear imperishable ideas eloquently expressed,” Schama said. “He could do that. No one’s ever done it since, in my view.”