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JFK's Legacy: A Trail Of Dreams, Tears And What Ifs

For a couple of generations of Americans, and not just Americans, John F. Kennedy has been Mr. Right: the image we look for in a leader, someone fresh, witty and graceful. Presidents as disparate as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have had flashes of JFK.

It is stirring to see the film of his inaugural, 50 years ago this week. A young president, filled with "vig-ah," as he called it, with no topcoat in the cold, his eloquence bursting into clouds as he declared, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

It is impossible to see the young president, who would be assassinated a thousand days later, and not wonder: what if?

And really, who knows? John F. Kennedy was charming, funny and self-effacing — and he could also be a rich brat and a cunning Boston pol. Fifty years later, we can forget that he was elected president by just a hair.

He told Jackie Robinson — who endorsed Richard Nixon in 1960 because of it — that he didn't know much about African-Americans, and although he deployed the federal government to enforce school integration, it's fair to wonder if John Kennedy would have had the personal commitment to civil rights that Lyndon Johnson demonstrated. Or, the political nerve to lose his party the votes of southern states.

And President Johnson felt that he had only fulfilled John F. Kennedy's oratory, policies and the counsel of Kennedy's best and brightest to send more and more U.S. troops to Vietnam.

What if John Kennedy had lived and the civil rights and anti-war movements had grown to regard him as an antagonist, rather than the lost president of their dreams?

What if more aggressive reporting had uncovered Kennedy-sanctioned assassination plots, or the secret agreement with the Soviets to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey? What if some of the presidents' most reckless romantic indiscretions, including a mobster's moll and an East German spy, had been revealed?

But even half a century later, Jack Kennedy's sheer skill and charm is mesmerizing. And by the time he died, he had painfully acquired wisdom in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. He told students at American University, just months before he was shot, that he sought peace:

"Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave ... the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women."

This week, we might remember why John Kennedy's assassination was not only a crime and tragedy, but also a theft of history.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small