Look, I hate to piss all over… no I don’t. Look, I’m going to piss all over the Boomer mythos here, but it has to be done.
The Kennedys are remembered as they are largely because of the simple fact that they were assassinated. JFK conducted himself well during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his foreign policy record was mixed. Was it his Civil Rights bill or Johnson’s? We’ll never know if it would have passed without the support that came with JFK’s assassination.
And why am I supposed to believe that JFK would have ended Vietnam? It was all of his people that kept it going, not just Johnson. The Gulf of Tonkin incident might have been a Johnsonian trick, but it’s not something the Kennedys were incapable of.
And then there’s RFK, the red-baiting, Democratic version of Roy Cohn. Is that harsh? Maybe, maybe too harsh. But Jack and Bobby were both carefully crafted media creations of their family in a way not too different from the Bushes or Rockefellers or, perhaps, the Clintons. (Bribery for Pulitzer prizes, anyone?)
RFK didn’t even enter the race until Gene McCarthy showed that LBJ was vulnerable. And RFK may have won, but the country was in the incipient stages of a rightward turn. I’m not sure that could have been averted, even by a superhuman president.
Those Boomers who think that things would have been “different” if these men hadn’t been shot are correct. But how they would be different is unknowable–that there would be some kind of utopia is the kind of pining for the Good Ole’ Days that created 20th century conservatism.
The spirit of the 60s wasn’t killed by two or three assassinations. It was killed by a society that had grown wealthy by social welfare programs and community sacrifice that didn’t want to share it’s gains anymore. When people went from “get” mode to “keep” mode in the 60s, after the New Deal built the middle class, that is what killed the 60s. Millions and millions of New Deal middle class folks who had risen up started taking all the credit for themselves, and stopped seeing the need for helping those less forunate.
Nixon, Reagan, Gingrch, and Bush II were the result. And it wasn’t three bullets. It was a million little sparks of spite aimed at minorities and the poor and the ethos of a generation that, even worse, took those gains their parents had become to feel entitled to after hard work for granted with or without work. I don’t think either of the Kennedys could have done much about that.