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The Great Man Theory

· The Lede

Walter Shapiro Explains Why We Just Can't Quit J.F.K.

JOURNAL: Is there anything to this idea that, if only the Kennedy assassination hadn’t happened, everything would have been different?

SHAPIRO: It’s crap.

You can argue for 100 years about what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam. But his presidency came 15 years after the Republicans went after Harry Truman and the Democrats over "who lost China?” I don’t think Kennedy would have been immune from not wanting to be accused of being the president "who lost Vietnam."

My guess is that Kennedy in a second term would have been much more timid on civil rights than LBJ. And Kennedy probably would not have waged the War on Poverty and laid the groundwork for lasting programs like Food Stamps. But Kennedy, likely blessed with strong congressional majorities after the 1964 election, would probably have pushed through Medicare -- the other lasting Democratic monument from the 1960s.

JOURNAL: With so much of America’s social safety net under attack, is it the lost world of the 1960s that we’re really nostalgic for? The affluence and the relative stability? Our childhoods, if we’re Boomers?

SHAPIRO: Yes, the nostalgia is real. But what is also unavoidable are the traumas of the ‘60s, starting with the assassinations. The traumas are real, too. The fact is that amid all the psychological debris of that wrenching decade, the assassinations probably haunt us to this day as much as Vietnam.

It is futile to play might-have-beens with history. But I sadly suspect that Martin Luther King would have been doomed in any case. On the other hand, if John Kennedy served two terms, then, in all likelihood, Bobby Kennedy wouldn’t have been assassinated in 1968. Bobby wouldn’t have run for president if his brother were still in the Oval Office.

It was on November 22, 1963, that we discovered that America was not an island of stability, that America was not immune to violence, that America was not as special as we thought it was.

JOURNAL: It’s clear that there were larger historical forces at work, even if J.F.K. might have tried to fulfill some of our Camelot dreams. Yet there is this entire industry of assassination conspiracy theories. And some of our best novelists are still thinking about what might have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been shot. Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn did this brilliantly. His alternate history was not that different from yours, although perhaps grimmer, and it was devastating.

SHAPIRO: People cannot accept that something so important in their lives was upended by someone as banal as Lee Harvey Oswald.

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Walter Shapiro is a columnist for The New Republic and Roll Call and is also a lecturer in political science at Yale.