Extravagance can be intoxicating, and those who grow accustomed to extravagance, only to be deprived of it, can miss it terribly. That accounts for much of the powerful hold John F. Kennedy has on a generation of Americans even today. He led people to imagine that their government had the boundless capacity to improve the world, and on the day he died, they could still believe that.
His administration and that of his vice president and successor Lyndon B. Johnson are significant in the same way: They represent the pinnacle of ambitious, visionary government. What each president lacked was a sober sense of the limits of what it could do, at home or abroad.
For a while, their confidence infected the American people. But the course of history was to furnish an unpleasant antidote.
Kennedy came into office having roused unrealistic expectations. "With the coming of a new administration, something akin to religious fervor distracts most Americans, an extension of the endless quest for a future that has something more to offer," wrote biographer Herbert Parmet. "With Kennedy this spirit was compounded, exaggerated, made more irrational."
His inaugural address did nothing to dampen the mood. It cast the United States not just as the defender of its own security and freedom, but as guarantor for the entire planet. Kennedy declared that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty (emphasis added)."
In case that promise did not seem sufficiently grandiose, he added, "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
Kennedy gave the highest priority to the foreign arena. But Johnson's domestic program grew out of initiatives begun by JFK. And LBJ was no more inclined to restrain his rhetoric.
He extolled his social welfare plan as though he were describing paradise: "The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. ... It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community ... beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."