JFK’s real legacy is modern TV politics

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's death, it's time to look at his legacy and wonder what might have been

Fifty years after John F Kennedy's death, his name still looms large in American politics despite a relatively modest list of achievements before his time as president was cut short by an assassin's bullet.

But in its way, that was JFK’s legacy. He was the bellwether of a new political form in which style and charisma began to triumph over substance.

There was, of course, a degree of serendipity to this. Kennedy sought the presidency just as television began to profoundly change the way elections were conducted in the United States and the rest of the world.

This was most famously demonstrated when the presidential debates were televised for the first time as part of the 1960 campaign.

A poll of those who listened to the first debate via radio showed most believed the Republican nominee, the then vice president Richard Nixon, had prevailed.

But for the estimated 70 million people who watched it on television, the greater impression was of Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, wan complexion and habit of dabbing beads of sweat from his chin, compared to Kennedy’s youthful vigour. The debate prompted a surge of support for Kennedy, who won the presidency by a narrow margin.

Fifty years on, it is difficult to imagine either of the parties in the US – or any other major democracy – choosing a candidate who was not telegenic.

This was a fundamental change in politics, even if the actual art of governance – at which Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson had more natural skills as a bruising deal-maker – continued much as before.

Quite apart from television, it is impossible to separate Kennedy from his time. The 1960s was a decade of growth and economic prosperity in the United States, a major factor in the prevailing mood of optimism.Kennedy was emblematic of this new optimism that was to lead to the social upheavals that epitomised the 1960s in the West.

Combined with his talent for inspirational rhetoric to go with his movie-star looks, it is no wonder that today Kennedy is more of an icon than any of his political contemporaries.

One can only wonder what his real legacy might have been if the assassin in Dallas had failed in his task.