To those of us who remember him not as an icon but as a living human being, the reminder that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, is especially shocking, if only because at the time of his death he was a great symbol of youth and (to use one of his favorite words) vigor. The farther we get from his soul-searing death, the greater the perspective we have on his shortcomings as well as his strengths (from what we now know of his sexual ethics, for example, it seems astonishing that Fr. Andrew Greeley once proposed he be designated a “Doctor of the Church,” like St. Thomas Aquinas).
We’ll never know had he avoided assassination if he would have renounced the war in southeast Asia he largely began, or would have consummated the civil rights revolution, or might have avoided the fracturing of American politics and culture in the late 1960s. Part of the family legacy he exemplified was ideological ambiguity: it’s no accident that both sides in many a “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” claimed JFK and RFK as their inspirations.
But 57 years after his election as president, one thing is clear: the two groups of Americans who most revered his memory–who were most likely to have placed photographs or paintings of the 35th president on the walls of their homes– have since gone their separate ways. That would be African-Americans, for whom he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to advocate a real attack on Jim Crow, and Catholics (who at the time were overwhelmingly white, and mostly Irish, Italian, German and Polish), for whom he represented the final emancipation from a milder but very real second-class citizenship. (New York Magazine)