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JFK - MAN OR MYTH? As the world marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F Kennedy, Wales on Sunday assesses how a man became a myth.

JUST hours after a sniper's bullet claimed the life of John F Kennedy 50 years ago this week, the New York Times' leader writer penned these words...

"It remains inconceivable that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States, whose every word and action typified youth and strength, now lies dead of an assassin's bullet.

"All of us - from the country's highest leaders to the humblest citizen - all of us are still in a state of shock from this stunning blow.

"And hundreds of millions of people beyond our borders - throughout the hemisphere and across the seas - mourn too the loss of a President who gave worldwide reality to the American ideals of peace and freedom."

It is a measure of the standing of the man known across the world by his initials, JFK, that those words are as true today as they were 50 years ago on November 22, 1963.

The assassination stunned the world 50 years ago because it claimed the life of a charismatic young president with a talent for inspiring oratory who a year earlier had helped to avert the threat of global nuclear war.

Today, that man has become a myth, forever immortalised as a youthful 46-year-old whose time short in power seems, in hindsight, to have been a bridge between the postwar years of rebuilding and the bipolar cold war era dominated by two superpowers that followed.

With his beautiful wife Jackie at his side, captured in colour photography that itself distinguishes him from the grainy images of earlier world leaders, he has also become a cultural symbol of modernity.

Yet this is the stuff of mythmaking.

The New York Times editorial of November 23, 1963, the day after the death of this privileged scion of the Kennedy clan, did not try to ascribe to his leadership any kind of century-defining importance.

It was his qualities rather than his achievements that the editorial praised, mourning as much the loss of what might have been as what had been.

It read: "He represented the vitality and the energy, the intelligence and the enthusiasm, the courage and the hope of these United States in the middle of this 20th century." Kennedy himself had the sense of being in power at a time of change, which he tried to convey in his speechmaking - a trick notably copied successfully by America's current President, the equally youthful, charismatic and inspiring Barack Obama.

His speeches referred to "the torch" being "passed to a new generation of Americans, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of an ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed".

It was a trick, of flattering his audience, of praising their suffering and their beliefs, that has been equally copied again and again.

Consider this quote: "It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to where we are today, but we have just begun. Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today."

It might sound similar but it came from Barack Obama, not his democratic predecessor 50 years earlier.

Many historians have wondered whether Kennedy's flattery and inspiring qualities would have endured as well if he had survived that sniper's bullet in Dallas half a century ago. Would photographs of an older Kennedy, perhaps one tarnished by a public sex scandal - which his activities with Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judith Campbell Exner certainly risked - have ensured him a lasting legacy as a glamorous hero that has survived the decades? Would he also have been tarred by the disaster that the Vietnam war became? Despite his scepticism for the conflict, a year before his death Kennedy had authorised the escalation of the nascent US involvement in the South East Asian conflict. His later calls for a reduction in troop numbers went unenacted.

Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B Johnson, has become far more associated with the humanitarian catastrophe that Vietnam became while Kennedy's name is attached to the triumph of averting the disaster that the Cuban missile crisis, when the Russians attempted to plant nuclear weapons on America's doorstep, threatened to become.

Today also, he is still associated with high-flown ideals, with his oratorical promotion of liberalism.

Yet critics at the time might have argued that his rhetoric was self serving and his ideals were at odds with some of his actions as president.

They might have argued that it was the political skill of Lyndon Johnson that ensured the passage of Medicare providing coverage for the elderly.

And they would have pointed out that Kennedy's inaction on civil rights led white segregationists to believe they could prolong segregation, and prompted black protesters to adopt more provocative tactics and make more radical demands.

And yet this is all to indulge in the dead end game of imagining what if.

The reality is that JFK was a hugely popular figure during his lifetime, whose approval ratings of more than 70% are the stuff of most mid-term leaders' wildest dreams.

And after his death, he has become a symbol for the values and modernity that millions aspire to hold.

Fifty years ago, the New York Times editorial, written by the then editorial page editor John B Oakes, concluded: "The light of reason was momentarily extinguished with the crack of a rifle shot in Dallas.

"But that light is, in reality, inextinguishable; and, with God's help, it will show the way to our country and our country's leaders as we mourn for John F Kennedy in the darkening days ahead."

Given the frequency with which today's leaders still quote Kennedy, it is fair to argue that his legacy still shows us the way today.


"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for your country" "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."

"I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone" - to 49 Nobel prize winners at a White House dinner "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future."

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

"A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."

"Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others."

"The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission."


The limousine carrying mortally wounded President John F Kennedy races towards the hospital seconds after he was shot in Dallas

US President John F Kennedy acknowledging the cheers of the crowd when he visited New Ross, Co. Wexford, Ireland, in June 1963 - just a few months before his assassination
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 24, 2013
Next Article:Comment&Analysis; Politics, comment and analysis edited by David James.

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