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Published November 21 2013

Forum editorial: ‘What if?’ lingers to this day

To a generation that was coming of age when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on this day in 1963, two questions linger:

Can it really be 50 years gone by?

And: What if? What if JFK had lived and been re-elected to a second term?

The answer to the first is easy. Time has raced by, so that for many Americans the assassination, funeral and the aftermath are ancient history. They do not have – cannot possibly have – the emotional connection to the events and the times. That joy or curse belongs to the generation that lived them.

What if? What might have been? The questions haunt the nation, and will as long as historians look back.

Kennedy’s presidency started off with disaster (the Bay of Pigs and growing entanglement in Vietnam). But by the time he was preparing for a re-election run, his job approval and popularity ratings were in the stratospheric 75 percent range. He’d faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. First lady Jaqueline Kennedy had emerged as the most popular, exciting first lady in history. The young and beautiful Kennedy family captured the imagination of a huge majority of Americans. He was on his way to a relatively easy re-election.

Had Dallas merely been a routine successful campaign visit (crowds were huge and friendly), and had JFK won that second term, how different would the nation be today? Would Kennedy have backed away from Vietnam? Would the horrific carnage that occurred under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have been avoided? Would Robert Kennedy, himself assassinated a few years later, have been the heir apparent to his brother? Would “Watergate” refer only to an apartment/office building in Washington?

And probably most importantly, would the cynicism, anger and distrust of government that rooted in the American psyche because of Vietnam and Watergate never have happened?

We’ll never know. Historians will speculate, and depending upon their bents and beliefs will come to competing conclusions. So, we’ll never really know.

Nonetheless, it is the “what if?” and “what might have been” that sharpen the memory, grasp the reality and nurture the myths of the Kennedy presidency – especially among Americans who watched the horror unfold 50 years ago today, only to retreat into profound melancholy from which many of them have yet to emerge.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.