Columbia Professors Discuss the Legacy of President John F. Kennedy

November 21, 2013
President John F. Kennedy smiles from stage at press conference, State Department Auditorium, Washington, D.C. Credit Line: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

ALAN BRINKLEY, Allan Nevins Professor of American History, Whose John F. Kennedy Volume in the American Presidents Series Was Published Last Year

John F. Kennedy was a good president but not a great one, most scholars concur. A poll of historians in 1982 ranked him 13th out of the 36 presidents included in the survey. Thirteen such polls from 1982 to 2011 put him, on average, 12th. Richard Neustadt, the prominent presidential scholar, revered Kennedy during his lifetime and was revered by Kennedy in turn. Yet in the 1970s, he remarked: “He will be just a flicker, forever clouded by the record of his successors. I don’t think history will have much space for John Kennedy.”

But 50 years after his death, Kennedy is far from “just a flicker.” He remains a powerful symbol of a lost moment, of a soaring idealism and hopefulness that subsequent generations still try to recover. His allure—the romantic, almost mystic, associations his name evokes—not only survives but flourishes. The journalist and historian Theodore White, who was close to Kennedy, published a famous interview for Life magazine with Jackie Kennedy shortly after her husband’s assassination, in which she said:

"At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

And thus a lyric became the lasting image.

HENRY GRAFF, Professor Emeritus of History, Taught One of the First Courses on the American Presidency

He was the youngest president ever elected and that was very fitting for a new generation who had fought in World War II and were about his age. He was good-looking, he had a beautiful wife and gorgeous children. It was very Hollywood-ish.

This view of Kennedy was, of course, a myth created in large measure by his father. I must add that JFK was a faker in many ways. The Pulitzer Prize he won [in 1957 for Profiles in Courage] was probably not deserved; many people helped him write it. Nobody knew then how ill Kennedy was all his life. Nobody knew the extent to which he was not an ideal husband. We did not know that the missile crisis ended in part because we made a deal with Khrushchev to give up our missiles in Turkey in exchange for removing theirs from Cuba. The public didn’t know any of this. They saw only this young man who was standing up to the Soviet Union and presumably was not going to go on with that fight in Vietnam. That’s all pure conjecture.

Twenty years ago President Bill Clinton appointed me to the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board, whose job was to assess whether the Warren Commission report was complete. We spent four years chasing Kennedy documents all over the world, even acquiring some from the Soviet Union and from Cuba.

Almost all assassinations of leaders raise questions, and there’s always the thought that there can’t be a simple explanation. People wondered if the men who shot Garfield and McKinley acted alone. As for Oswald, the question was how could this know-nothing, incompetent little man kill the president of the United States? Ultimately we picked up four million documents that are housed in the National Archives now, and there was no evidence that anybody other than Oswald was involved in that assassination.

On the day of the assassination, I was at the Rand McNally publishing offices outside of Chicago, where my textbook "The Free and the Brave" was just about to go to press. We were at a restaurant when we heard Walter Cronkite make the announcement of the president’s death and I lost my appetite. I was absolutely stunned. In the afternoon I went back to Rand McNally and pulled the page with the list of all the presidents and their dates in office, and I altered it to include the newest president, Lyndon Johnson.

JEFF SACHS, Director of the Earth Institute, Published His Latest Book, "To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace," in June

John F. Kennedy represents for us the hopes and potential of our own lives, and of an America that we believe, as JFK famously said, can truly light the world. JFK viewed himself as a “practical idealist,” who both knew the importance of ideals and vision and who understood the realities of life and politics. Most importantly, JFK powerfully viewed leadership as the opportunity to inspire collective action. Solutions, he knew, could not come just from the top; they must come from across the society and across the world. For that reason, he was always bidding every fellow American, every fellow citizen of the world, to join in quests of higher purpose. Listening to JFK’s speeches one feels powerfully that he is speaking directly to us as peers—fellow warriors in valiant causes.

Most fundamentally, JFK told us about our common purpose as human beings, always emphasizing that what unites us is vastly deeper than what divides us. His words in the Peace Speech he gave [at American University in June 1963] on our common humanity remain for me his most eloquent words, and of enduring importance for our time:

“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.”

TONY BARCLAY, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Kenya After College

As an undergraduate at Yale I was inspired, as so many Americans have been over five decades, by John F. Kennedy's call to serve in the Peace Corps. JFK had an ambitious vision to place 100,000 volunteers overseas every year. He remarked to Sargent Shriver and Harris Wofford, who were there at the creation: "Just imagine how our nation will be changed, in 10 years' time, when one million of our citizens have lived and worked in developing countries!"

Although the Peace Corps never reached that scale, it has endured and adapted well in a changing global environment. It still appeals strongly to many Americans, and the demand for volunteers in many countries across the world greatly exceeds the number who can be supported with the current Peace Corps budget. We can only imagine what might be different in our society, and in our global relationships, had JFK's vision been realized.

My immersion into the Peace Corps began with a stateside training program at Teachers College in the fall of 1967. Fifty of us set off for Kenya, and 30 for Uganda three months later, as secondary school teachers. In the interval, we'd learned the ropes of pedagogy and lesson plans at TC, and had apprenticed alongside veteran teachers in public high schools across New York City.

My experience in Kenya shaped my future career, and in 1971 I found myself back at TC in the applied anthropology Ph.D. program, where professors Lambros Comitas and George Bond were my intellectual guides and mentors. After a long career leading an international development consulting firm, DAI, I'm fortunate today to serve as board chair of the National Peace Corps Association, whose mission is to connect and champion members of the Peace Corps community who continue to "bring the world back home," just as JFK hoped all of us would do.