Fifty years after the horrific day in Dallas, it's hard to think of John F. Kennedy apart from an aura of political sainthood. But mythology is disorienting in the long run, and we can do better with realism.
JFK brought youthful intelligence and evocations of soaring idealism to the Oval Office. But he got there as a cold warrior who had falsely claimed during the 1960 presidential campaign that the United States was on the short end of a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union.
As president, Kennedy rolled the dice for all of humanity in October 1962. Determined to prevent installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, the president voiced willingness to chance a vast holocaust.
Speaking from the White House with valorous and dangerous rhetoric, he said: "We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth --- but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced."
After the crisis, to his credit, Kennedy reached agreement with the Soviet government for the Limited Test Ban Treaty to end atmospheric nuclear testing.
That pact was a tremendous step forward for public health, curtailing the radioactive fallout that had afflicted the world since the mid-1940s. But the treaty -- banishing nuclear test blasts to underground locations -- did nothing to slow the nuclear arms race.
President Kennedy relied on deft wordsmiths to produce lofty speeches about freedom and democracy. Yet he dispatched new "special forces" to the Third World, where -- below the media radar -- they targeted labor-union organizers and other assorted foes of U.S.-backed oligarchies.
As for racial justice at home, Kennedy was cautious. He expended scant political capital for civil rights legislation. Activists in the South -- confronting Jim Crow and facing the Klan -- needed federal protection, which rarely arrived.
In contrast to the eight Eisenhower years, the Kennedy administration brought sizzle and vitality to the Nation's Capital. As a child growing up in the D.C. area at the time, I remember walking past storefront shops near Pennsylvania Avenue; they displayed souvenir plates and other knickknacks with images of a vibrant and regal First Family.
A few years later, when I passed the same storefront windows just east of the White House, the Kennedy glamour had gone dusty, as if suspended in time, facing backward.
I thought of a scene from "Great Expectations." The Kennedy era already seemed like the room where Miss Havisham's wedding cake had turned to ghastly cobwebs; in Dickens' words, "as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together."
The clocks all seemed to stop together on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. But after the assassination, the gist of the reputed "best and brightest" remained in top Cabinet positions. And our country proceeded with escalation of the war on Vietnam.
Five decades later, with our country a warfare state as much as ever, we would do well to ponder words from President Kennedy's speech at American University scarcely five months before he died: "I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war -- and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task."
[This article appeared in the Marin Independent Journal on Nov. 20, 2013.]