I believe I'm the only Indy writer who is old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination. I was in the 8th grade in 1963, in Fair Haven, NJ, and I was vice president of my class. I mention that because I recall feeling that, as an elected leader, I ought to rise to the occasion in some way, though I don't believe I did. A black-and-white television was wheeled into the cafeteria and we watched in silence, taking in the news.
In other words, Kennedy's victory was a triumph of brain-power which resulted in the smartest candidate with the smartest team becoming president. And indeed that seemed to be the objective: Rather than any specific policy goals, the point of electing Kennedy — his campaign said — was that the U.S. was in a Cold War with the Russians, and we needed the smartest guy possible in the Oval Office to be making the critical calls day-to-day.
This struck me as proper since, again, I was in grade school, and I was studying to be smart.
After I read White, I plunged into the history of president elections, which taught me that prior to Kennedy, the best (smartest) candidate usually didn't win. For every Washington and Roosevelt, there'd been a Taylor, a Buchanan, a Hayes, two Harrisons and a McKinley. And a Hoover. We'd been lucky with Eisenhower. Everybody liked Ike, and he was smart enough, but by the end he didn't seem to be functioning all that well.
Another thing I learned was that assassinations and attempted assassinations were a regular event in the American presidency. Most of American history, it seemed, was about warfare and guns. So as I say, I wasn't surprised to hear that Kennedy'd been shot. No, what I thought was, "they've taken him out."
I don't know that I've ever tried to put in words the impact the assassination had on me. But it occurs to me as I write this that the elevation to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson has caused me to see in every political situation since then the question of whether the candidate/officeholder had earned the position, as Kennedy did, or was unworthy, as Johnson was.
And, yes, you can argue that Kennedy was the unworthy beneficiary of daddy's money, while Johnson was the skillful Senate majority leader who, as president, pushed through all the Great Society legislation that Kennedy couldn't. But what I experienced is that the nation chose Kennedy to be president and not Johnson (or Nixon) for good reasons, and those good reasons were validated by Johnson's insane prosecution of —and lying about — the Vietnam War.
But someone with a gun, in Texas, reversed the electorate's decision and put Johnson in charge. I never subscribed to any of the conspiracy theories about Lee Harvey Oswald. I do subscribe to the idea that in America, political hatreds are in the water and it's a short step from there to a rifle.
Since Kennedy, we've elected a series of presidents who were not the brightest lights on the tree. Nixon, Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush weren't dummies, but they didn't win on their brains, put it that way. Worse, intelligence as a desired quality in our political leaders has been steeply devalued, and if you doubt that statement, look no further than our very own governor, Pat McCrory.
I will stipulate that the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, our three book-smart presidents since Kennedy, have done little to elevate the public's desire to put the brightest people in office.
I will also stipulate that, as smart as Kennedy and Ted Sorenson and the rest of the Kennedy team were, they bungled the Bay of Pigs before getting the Cuban Missile Crisis right; and it's not clear what they would've done about Vietnam, though I think they'd have figured it out enough to avoid the quagmire Johnson put us in.
All that said, I believe that what was lost when Kennedy died was not so much a political direction as it was the basic possibility of a nation governed by people of intelligence who are trusted by the voters because of their intelligence to do the best job possible, understanding that nothing turns out perfectly and you can't get everything right.
The promise of the Kennedy Administration — Camelot, in the re-telling — was that the United States would figure out how to fulfill its mission as the land of the free and leader of the free world, and that the best way we could help that happen was to elect smart people who were committed to make the best decisions possible and then trust them through thick and thin.
After Johnson and Nixon — Vietnam and Watergate — we decided that we can't trust anybody in high office, and the thing to look for is candidates who pledge to do nothing except reduce the size, scope and ambition of government. We make exceptions in a crisis or when the economy's in recession (Carter, Clinton, Obama), but we don't cut them much slack. In general, we're looking for people unworthy of leadership because we don't want leaders any more — we haven't seen a good one for 50 years.