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The Kennedy Effect

Political science professor Larry Sabato examines JFK's enduring influence on American politics

President John F. Kennedy Courtesy of the White House Press Office

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Larry Sabato (Col '74), director of the Center for Politics, and his team of researchers have spent five years delving into what is perhaps the most scrutinized murder of the 20th century, and examining the legacy of Kennedy's presidency on subsequent administrations. Their work has resulted in The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, a book due out in October and accompanied by a Public Broadcasting System documentary. Sabato will also be offering a free, non-credit massive online open course on the subject this fall through Coursera.

Half Century, Sabato's 25th book, marks a departure for one of UVA's best-known professors. "My previous books have been about campaigns, elections and the political process, but this book is political history," Sabato says. "Like millions of Americans, part of me has been on hold since Nov. 22, 1963. I wanted to understand more about both the assassination puzzle and the events that flowed from it over five decades."

Fresh off his Center for Politics' Emmy win for Out of Order, a documentary that examines the lack of civility in American politics, Sabato sat down to speak with UVA Magazine about the lasting impact that JFK and other members of the Kennedy family have had on American politics and the office of the presidency.

There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of books written about John Kennedy. Why would anybody bother reading anything more about him? What's different about this book?

This is a totally different Kennedy book. It is not fundamentally about his administration or the assassination. It's about the 50 years since the assassination. It examines the concept of legacy: what is it, how it applies to public office, how it is used to produce power for succeeding presidents. It looks at how presidents since Kennedy used his words and deeds to achieve their own goals. Legacy is life after death, and that's what people have ignored when it comes to Kennedy. The more powerful your legacy is, and the longer it lasts, the more life you have. And there is no one—no one—in modern American history who has had more life after death than Kennedy. He's the only president in American history that really translates well into the 21st century.

Larry Sabato and his collection of Kennedy memorabilia at his Pavilion IV home Photo by Phil De Jong

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about Kennedy's legacy in the several years you spent researching?

I think how extensive the use of Kennedy has been by succeeding presidents—and not just Democratic ones. No one used Kennedy to better effect than Ronald Reagan. He has the best record of using Kennedy to accomplish his goals, with the obvious exception of Lyndon Johnson. Reagan was just spectacular in finding ways to use Kennedy's words and deeds to get his own programs passed. And he had to engineer quite a flip-flop to do that. He had strongly supported Richard Nixon when he ran against Kennedy in 1960. Reagan had sent a letter to Nixon calling Kennedy a promoter of socialism and linked him to Karl Marx and Hitler—really. But he had matured since then, and knew you use all the instruments available to you to accomplish your goals. President Clinton cited Kennedy extensively, but I don't think it had the same impact on his administration. Reagan used Kennedy's record and rhetoric better than any Democratic president, and that's a magnificent irony.

How did Reagan use the Kennedy legacy?

Kennedy was a moderate and in some ways even conservative president. We mis-remember Kennedy because of Robert Kennedy (Law '51) and Teddy Kennedy (Law '59). Robert Kennedy was conservative, but became liberal. It was really Teddy, who was the liberal lion in the Senate for decades, who transformed the Kennedy image. But if you go back to John Kennedy's record, he was a moderate to conservative Democrat. He was tough on communism and believed in a very muscular foreign policy, just like Reagan. So Reagan used that in how he handled the Soviets. Kennedy originated the first across-the-board tax cut, which became one of Reagan's biggest accomplishments, and he used Kennedy over and over again to get it passed. It's just fascinating to see, and that he was able to do it in a way that worked.

You write that Kennedy has been elevated in people's minds in part because of the unsuccessful presidencies that followed his.

First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy and President Kennedy exit Air Force One in Texas in November 1963.
I don't think there's any question about that. When Kennedy died, he had completed fewer than three years of his first term, but was coming off a giant success with the Cuban missile crisis and the aftermath, which produced the nuclear test ban treaty. He was heading into what was bound to have been a successful re-election campaign. It would have been a landslide, or close to it, and it would have generated a large Democratic majority of Kennedy supporters, which Kennedy didn't have after his first election in 1960. He was at his peak and America was at its post-WWII peak. Then comes LBJ, who at first achieved a lot, but then the failure of Vietnam comes. Then the debacle of Watergate with Nixon. Then the disappointments with Jimmy Carter on Iran and the economy. People looked back and who looked great? Kennedy.

A lot of historians debate whether Kennedy would have gotten us involved in Vietnam to the degree that Johnson did. What conclusions do you make about it now?

I have a long section about why I think Kennedy would not have ever come close to sending a half-million troops to Vietnam, as LBJ did. Beyond the Democratic Party itself, Kennedy's real base was "intellectual America" in the universities and the media. Johnson was the opposite. He was a graduate of a small state teacher's college in Texas, not Harvard. He hated the intellectuals. The fact they didn't like his Vietnam policy made it right in his mind. Johnson had surprisingly little foreign policy experience, but Kennedy had a great deal of it. Kennedy had a better grasp of what could be done successfully, and what could and should not be done. And he had the Bay of Pigs experience and was wary of the generals and their often hawkish advice. Johnson often said to the military, "Tell me what you want, you got it."

A good chunk of the book focuses on the assassination and some of the related conspiracies, which have been covered a thousand times over. What could you possibly add to that debate?

Academics are steeped in the scientific method, and that can help in some new ways. It isn't enough just to have a theory of some sort, with bits and pieces of evidence and conjecture thrown together. And with that phrase, I have just described most books on the assassination. You're going to discover that our findings are quite different—and have some well-documented novel twists. But why bother to investigate it again at all? Because this is still an open wound, even after 50 years. A large majority of Americans does not believe the government has told the truth. The Warren Commission is part of the foundation of our modern cynicism, and it must be addressed. So we go through the assassination trail, I think, in a way that will give people a new perspective.

You write that the assassination was inevitable.

President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963
The Secret Service didn't do a good job because they weren't given the resources to do a good job. We have slides and videos that we include in the book and website that indicate just how bad it was—and it was getting worse. Kennedy was increasingly being overwhelmed with crowds just enveloping the limousine. It was a terrible way of protecting the president and no one did anything about it, including the White House staff. An assassination attempt didn't have to happen in Dallas, but it would have almost certainly happened at some point during an eight-year term. It was just too easy to accomplish, and Kennedy had too many enemies with a motive to get him out of the way—plus all the individual nuts with guns.

Where were you when you learned he had been assassinated?

I was in my sixth grade class at St. Pius X elementary school in Norfolk, Va., being taught by Sister Robert. She was a saint because she taught 62 boys in one classroom. Someone came to the door, and Sister was clearly shocked. She told us the president had been shot, and asked us to take out our rosary beads, standard equipment in a Catholic school, to pray in unison for Kennedy's recovery. This was about 2 p.m. We found out shortly thereafter over the PA system that our prayers were too little, too late. In stunned silence, with some soft crying, we gathered our things and school was dismissed. I remember saying to a friend at our lockers, 'He was the only Catholic president we ever had, and he didn't even get to finish his term.' Catholic identity was strong back then, in part because there was so much anti-Catholic prejudice.

You have your own connection to Kennedy's legacy. Your career in politics, if you will, started with him.

Kennedy delivers a speech in Berlin in June of 1963.
Kennedy was an important part of my life when he became president. As I said, I was Catholic and supporting Kennedy was the eighth sacrament—and it was the easiest of the eight sacraments, I might add. I was 7 years old when I began handing out Kennedy literature and had just turned 8 when I saw him in Norfolk. He came at the end of the week before the actual election in November 1960. It was the first political event I had seen in person, although there was nothing profound about it. A candidate drove by in an open car and then gave a speech at a rally. But to an 8-year-old, it was exciting. The energy level was as high as anything I had experienced. 

Whom did Kennedy admire politically? Who were his role models?

His father, I think, more than anyone else. The family had disputes with the Roosevelts. Truman also strongly opposed Kennedy. He preferred Johnson in 1960 and told Kennedy to wait his turn. There really was no one politically that JFK modeled himself after. After all, the Kennedys were their own special political machine. The Democratic Party was just a walking stick to get to the top of the mountain. People are surprised when they learn that Kennedy could easily have voted for Nixon in 1960, and once told friends he would have if he, Kennedy, wasn't the Democratic nominee. Nixon was a chum from the House who attended Jack and Jackie's wedding. And Kennedy was very friendly with Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, which put off Eleanor Roosevelt, among others.

Let's talk about how Kennedy's legacy affected some of the presidents that followed. You mentioned Reagan. Johnson has some obvious connections.

Yes, well the Civil Rights Act was passed just months after Kennedy's death. It was going nowhere before his death. Johnson made it a monument to Kennedy, saying, "This is what Kennedy would have wanted us to do." That's how he got it through. He used Kennedy for everything, as he should have.

What about his war on poverty?

We associate the war on poverty with Johnson. But Johnson actually got the idea from a meeting Kennedy had the day he left for Dallas with Walter Heller, one of Kennedy's economic advisers. Heller said he wanted to introduce a project to reduce poverty in Appalachia. Kennedy basically said, "OK, but keep it small, I just want it to be a pilot program." Heller, almost immediately after Johnson gets back from Dallas, tells Johnson what Kennedy said. Johnson seizes on it, and with his poor rural background, declares, "That's my kind of program!" The difference is LBJ wanted it to be big. Texas big. And to get it passed, he attributed it to Kennedy, when Kennedy had tentatively, maybe, approved a tiny pilot program. But that's exactly what a president should do. You grab the inch and take a mile. Claim it was all due to your predecessor if you have to, to get it passed. Now with Vietnam, he claimed the same thing—that Kennedy was on the path to a massive troop buildup, which was absolutely untrue.

You say Nixon was friends with Kennedy, but he lost to him in 1960, and then was president when Americans landed on the moon, which people consider one of Kennedy's biggest accomplishments.

Yes, but the real effect of the Kennedy legacy on Nixon was that it deepened Nixon's resentments toward the press, intellectuals, Jews—fill in the blank—because he believed they all conspired to deny him the presidency in 1960. The right kind of president would have turned the page and said, "I've got the prize. How can I bring them in to help me accomplish what I want to do to make me a great president?" Nixon could not do that. He was driven wild by the ghost of Kennedy, as was Johnson toward the end of his presidency. There is the case of Johnson, who did drink a bit, running from the Oval Office claiming he saw the ghost of Kennedy. In a figurative sense, Nixon was haunted by that same ghost. The more successful Nixon became, the more bitter he became, and it related to the 1960 loss to Kennedy. When he became president he thought he had the power to get back at everyone who had ever done him wrong, and that's the beginning of his end. Nixon acknowledged that himself on the day he resigned.

About that end, Nixon also thought what happened in Watergate was not any worse than what the Kennedys did.

It's true. The Kennedys hadn't employed skullduggery to that degree. But there was plenty of bugging by the Kennedys and Johnson, too. They bugged one another, they bugged their enemies, the steel executives, Martin Luther King Jr., people in the press that they suspected of this, that or the other.

Brothers Ted (Law '59), John and Robert Kennedy (Law '51) at UVA in 1958. Ted was managing John's Senate re-election campaign while a law student. Photo courtesy of UVA Law School Library Special Collections

Carter was the first Democrat since Johnson and came in after Watergate, but he didn't seize the Kennedy mantel.

Carter was often compared to Kennedy during the campaign, if you can believe it. Every Democrat ran as Kennedy for two generations. But for Carter, the ghost of Kennedy was personified in Teddy. Just as Ted was an obsession for Nixon, he became an obsession for Carter, and with good cause. Teddy is one of the main reasons Carter was a one-term president. Ted Kennedy passed on running against Ford in '76, which was a mistake. He would have beaten Ford, had Ted been nominated. So Carter wins instead. But Teddy still thinks he is next in line, that it's his turn, which is why he runs in '80. When I interviewed President Carter for this book, he told me, "Teddy Kennedy was the biggest pain in my ass the last two years of my presidency." I thought, "More than Iran? More than double-digit interest rates?" Apparently so. This is still a raw wound for Carter.

The Kennedy Half Century is due out in October 2013 and will be accompanied by a PBS documentary. In addition, Sabato will be offering a MOOC on the subject this fall through Coursera. Photo by Phil De Jong
We touched on Reagan earlier, so let's move ahead to Clinton. He basically ran as the next JFK.

Yes, and he did so because he needed it. It was in his interest to quote Kennedy all the time. He needed to be bigger and more bipartisan than he seemed when he ran. Clinton appeared so small, this scandal-drenched governor from supposedly backwoods Arkansas, that it is amazing he won. So Clinton made a big deal about having shaken Kennedy's hand in the Rose Garden for three seconds in 1963 when he was at Boys Nation, and they had a film clip of it, and that helped Clinton make the link with JFK. Then, the day before he was inaugurated, Clinton went up to the grave with several of the Kennedys, and his first real vacation was a sailing trip with Jacqueline and Teddy. He toned down the Kennedy allusions in the second term because of Monica Lewinsky, however. The Clinton-Kennedy comparisons became too obvious, given what we now know about Kennedy's personal life. Clinton may have learned all the wrong lessons from Kennedy, at least with respect to womanizing while in office.

How has Obama benefited from the Kennedy legacy?

The Kennedys made all the difference for Obama. He would not have been the Democratic nominee without the endorsement of Teddy and Caroline Kennedy at just the right moment, before Super Tuesday in the primaries. But Obama has no memory of John Kennedy, no special emotional connection. He heard about Kennedy from his mother and other family members. Obama was born in 1961. While Obama's done the obvious things, citing Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his travels to Berlin and Ireland, for example, it doesn't have much punch. He also stitched a Kennedy quote into the Oval Office carpet, but that's really been it.

Could Kennedy win the presidency today?

A version of John F. Kennedy could win in almost any era, but he would have to adapt to the rules and issues of the times. I suspect he would. Raw ambition and great talent tend to produce necessary adaptations. And I doubt anyone else could duplicate JFK's effect on people. His political style, humor, rhetorical abilities and ideal TV persona were unique.


The Kennedy Half Century will be released in October. The book's websites are and