Robert J. Samuelson: The JFK fascination

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Kennedy's assassination shattered the illusion of control. Who could imagine an American president being shot? But many unimagined events followed: race riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and many cities; a powerful antiwar movement; the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; a president's resignation (Watergate).

Camelot was that brief interlude when we thought we could impose our will. That is its magnetism. It was less an innocent time than a simplistic one. We thought we could engineer the future and discovered that the future wouldn't cooperate. Our continuing seduction by the Kennedy narrative presumes that had he lived, the future would have been better. He would have grasped the folly of Vietnam, embraced the new youth culture and advanced civil rights. This subtext sustains the Kennedy fascination.

It requires us to suspend disbelief, for there was a great contradiction at the core of his brief presidency. Though Kennedy projected mastery, he followed events more than he led them. It takes a huge leap of faith to think a second term would have been much different.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.

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