Sabato and the UVA Center for Politics hosted “The Kennedy Half Century” in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom on October 14, where the panelists included Wesley Buell Frazier, a co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository; Sid Davis, a journalist for Westinghouse Broadcasting at the time who rode in the presidential motorcade's press bus; James C. Bowles, in 1963 a communications supervisor for the Dallas Police Department and later sheriff of Dallas County.
The panel also featured former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley, author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA; and Henry Hurt, author of Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Coincidentally, Hurt is the father of Virginia's Fifth District congressman, Robert Hurt, whose constituency includes Charlottesville and UVA.)
After the two-hour discussion, Sabato spoke with me about his 2013 book, The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, which was published on October 15 with an eye toward attracting attention during the weeks running up to the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. That book was also tied to a public-TV documentary film of the same name, which was later shown at the Virginia Film Festival and is now available on DVD.
The book, he said, “has been a five-year project,” which he undertook in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's murder.
Although people are quite interested in the assassination and its theories and counter-theories, Sabato emphasized that “two-thirds of the book is about President Kennedy's life, presidency, and then his legacy through nine successors.”
He defined “legacy” as “a kind of life after death. Kennedy's words and deeds were so powerful that his successors of both parties have used him to accomplish their own agendas, and some of them very cleverly.”
The best, he said, was Ronald Reagan, who “used Kennedy even better than Lyndon Johnson did. Johnson distorted the Kennedy legacy, certainly by the middle of his full term.”
Sabato said his aim in the book was “to focus more on President Kennedy's life than on his death” but he recognizes that “you can't understand the legacy until you understand the assassination because it created so much of the Kennedy myth.”
By way of illustration, he recounted an anecdote he discovered that “stunned” him when he came across it.
One day, Kennedy had invited a Lincoln scholar to the White House to give a lecture. He asked the historian, after the speech, whether Lincoln would be so highly regarded had he not been assassinated.
“The historian immediately answered, 'of course not' because he would have had to deal with the nitty-gritty of Reconstruction, he wouldn't have had the martyrdom conferred by assassination, and several other reasons,” Sabato explained, reporting that “Kennedy said, 'Exactly what I thought' and apparently made a comment to Jackie later on, 'well, if I'm going to die, this would be a good time.' That was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The same principle that affected Lincoln's legacy “applies to Kennedy,” said Sabato.
“Had he actually faced the challenges of the sixties, had he lived through two full terms, for one thing, his marital infidelity could have come out. There were so many women, it's amazing that it didn't come out during his short presidency. All kinds of things could have happened.”
By Sabato's estimation, Kennedy would not “be nearly as highly regarded,” in part because “presidencies tend to deteriorate in the last two or three years of an eight-year term.” Kennedy, he said, “never had to face that and he died at a peak moment of American power, economically and militarily.”
Kennedy also would not have achieved as much of the domestic agenda that was completed by Lyndon Johnson, he said.
Although Kennedy would have beaten Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Sabato explained, it would have been by a narrower margin than Johnson's eventual victory – “55-45 instead of 61-38.”
The difference, he pointed out, was that “Kennedy was much more cautious than Johnson by nature. He would have stopped at the Civil Rights Act. I don't think he really would have pushed for the Voting Rights Act or the Open Housing Act unless he were forced to.”
In an assessment that meshes with Ira Stoll's thesis in JFK, Conservative (also published last October 15), Sabato characterized the 35th president as "cautious and conservative."
As Sabato did research for his book, including interviews with people who worked in Kennedy's administration, what struck him was “just how cautious he was. He was fiscally cautious. The only reason he was worried about his across-the-board tax cut was because it would increase the deficit. He was a budget hawk in a lot of ways.”
On foreign policy, too, he was “a hawk.”
That was why Reagan cited Kennedy so often, Sabato said: “Because he could adapt that rhetoric to his fight against the Evil Empire.”
He recalled that JFK had criticized the Eisenhower administration for a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union that turned out to be non-existent, “which he later admitted after the election. He was the hawk” in comparison to 1960 rival Richard Nixon.
John F. Kennedy, Sabato concluded, “was a very different kind of Democrat. People have forgotten it. They've mixed him up with Bobby in the later years and then Teddy's career. Jack Kennedy was the moderate, or moderate-conservative, in the family.”
(This article is a modified version of a piece that previously appeared on Examiner.com.)