For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, “It might have been.”
Fifty years ago this week (November 8, 1960), Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th President of the United States. Although Kennedy won the Electoral College by a fair amount (303-219), he prevailed by only a razor thin margin of 112,827 votes, representing just 0.1 percent of the popular vote.
Winthrop voters, who turned out in huge numbers for that election with a 96 percent turnout, had no doubt about their choice, as they gave JFK a huge victory here by a margin of 2-1. The Kennedy family was especially popular in Winthrop, where the Kennedy clan often visited during the summers to the home of JFK’s grandfather on Washington Ave. when the Kennedy children were very young.
Despite his less than overwhelming victory, Kennedy became a popular President. The handsome and young (he was 43 when elected) President, accompanied by his gracious and beautiful wife, Jackie, and their two young children, epitomized the America of that era when, in Kennedy’s words, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” In contrast to the Presidency of Barack Obama, the midterm elections of 1962 saw Kennedy’s Democratic party lose just four seats in the House but pick up four seats in the Senate. In both houses the Democrats retained sizeable majorities.
However on November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Ever since, historians have pondered and debated how the future course of America might have changed, if at all, had Kennedy lived and been re-elected to a second term. Would there have been a Vietnam War? Would Kennedy have been able to achieve the progress on Civil Rights and other issues that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was able to attain?
As we have come to learn, John F. Kennedy was not a perfect man. Much of the myth surrounding him in the first few decades after his death has been brought face to face with reality.
But even for those of us who were very young at the time of his Presidency, we do know that the America of that era was a far different place than the America we know today. Certainly, the America of the early 1960s was not perfect either. But one clear difference between then and now is that, unlike today, America’s optimism was unbounded, there were certain principles by which we all lived, and the political discourse was not guided by either a bunch of fruit bats or totally self centered interest groups.
Had JFK lived, would the America of today, 50 years after his election, be any different? And if so, if historians can glean from the past hints of what the future might have been, or if perhaps some computer can analyze all of the data and give us a prediction, would it be possible to get us to that place that we all remember so fondly and wish we could have today?