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Assessing the Kennedy Legacy

3:08 PM, Nov 22, 2013   |    comments
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(NEWS CENTER) -- President John. F. Kennedy left a lot of unfinished business behind when he was assassinated 50 years ago. Several prominent Mainers talk about the impact of JFK and his relatively brief adminstration.

Admirers of President Kennedy point out that his style and vigor helped energize the country. But what about the substance? Musician and activist Noel Stookey says Kennedy helped inspire people to identify and begin to address the many inequalities and abuses in American society. Stookey says "These things though, as difficult as they are to face, I think can be attributed to President Kennedy and his youth, his desire to make the world a better place for more people, his expression of equity for all, which I think forced him to speed up his acceptance of the civil rights legislation."

The Civil Rights laws would be enacted by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Attorney Harold Pachios was a press aide in the Johnson White House, and had served in the Peace Corps under Kennedy. He says Kennedy had to move cautiously on civil rights.

"He had to be very careful. He was a New Englander. And he was afraid of really totally angering all of the South and losing all of the South. Lyndon Johnson was not afraid of that."

Formner Senator George Mitchell says while Johnson finished what Kennedy started, there was a price to pay.

"Lyndon Johnson said to (press secretary) Bill Moyers when he signed the civil-rights law, 'We've lost the south for a generation.' He was right about the loss, but he underestimated. It wasn't just one generation, it was many generations. It's clearly had tremendous adverse consequences. But that's true in politics generally. Sometimes doing the right thing is costly. And you have to do the right thing notwithstanding what the political cost might be."

Sen. Angus King was a college student when Kennedy died. He says Kennedy proved to be the indispensable man with his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

"He had some qualities that weren't really qualities. But I'll tell ya, you think about and read about the Cuban missile crisis... Man, am I glad he was there.  His real contribution was just taking a deep breath and saying 'Let's keep working on this until we come up with another option.' And in fact that's what happened in Syria. I kept saying and other people kept saying 'aren't there other options between nothing and missiles? ' And it turns out there was."

Sen. Mitchell says JFK's election was a breakthrough.

"I thought it was great thing for the country that John F. Kennedy put to rest the notion that a Catholic couldn't be elected president of the United States. And it's interesting to look back before the election, it seemed impossible. After he was elected most people said, 'what was that all about? what was the big deal?' I think in a certain sense perhaps even a more dramatic sense, President Obama's election made the same point many years later."

And Mitchell thinks history will continue to judge Kennedy kindly.

"As we've learned in the years since, he was human, he had his faults, he made mistakes, we all do. But I think he brought to the office an energy and innovation and a spirit that lifted the spirits of Americans and enabled us to move forward in what I think was a positive way."

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