You can debate John F. Kennedy's place in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.
Surveys of historians consistently place him among the top dozen chief executives, though he has also appeared high on historians' lists of the most overrated.
But by one measure, JFK unquestionably rates on the Mount Rushmore of presidents: the level of public fascination he engenders, even a half-century after his death.
Consider all the Kennedy narratives that still captivate the American public and evoke emotions today: the magnetic personality. The inspiring idealism. Camelot. Staring down the Soviets. Shooting for the moon. The stolen promise. The questionable morals. The conspiracy theories.
Almost all those themes start or end with the gunshots that rang out in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The shocking assassination of the young and charismatic leader, unfolding at the dawn of the television age, became one of those rare “where were you when'' moments — one that will be long seared in the nation's memory.
“He has such staying power in the public consciousness,'' said Barbara Perry, a University of Virginia expert on the presidency. “To die the way he did, in such a horrific fashion, playing out in the modern media. In our memory, he is frozen in time, at the peak of his power.''
The approach of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's slaying has unleashed a wealth of remembrances and efforts to reassess his imprint on history. But the interest is hardly new. Tim Borstelmann, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, notes that some 40,000 books have been penned about the nation's 35th president.
“There is a perpetual fascination with Kennedy,'' Borstelmann said.
Sizing up Kennedy's legacy is made far more difficult by the fact his term and life were left unfinished, his presidency lasting but 1,000 days. Some give him credit for elements of his agenda that became law after his death, particularly in civil rights. Others say Congress largely passed them in sympathy for the martyred president.
Regardless, there is no question that in his abbreviated time on the national stage, Kennedy changed the presidency, the nation and the world.
Tom Gouttierre, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's renowned Center for Afghanistan Studies, remembers watching the dynamic presidential candidate speak at his college in Ohio in 1960.
“Here was a man proposing the United States reach out to the rest of the world not with military overtones, but with cooperative, peaceful objectives,'' Gouttierre said. “I truly was inspired by it.''
Four years later, Gouttierre and his wife became among the first volunteers in Kennedy's Peace Corps. Their life-changing assignment: Afghanistan.
Upon Gouttierre's arrival in the isolated, impoverished country in 1964, Afghans who spoke no English would utter Kennedy's name and then shake their heads, sharing America's dismay over his death.
Some observers still ponder what could have been, whether the agony of the 1960s, dominated by an unpopular war, civil rights strife, generational clashes, loss of trust in government and more assassinations, could have been avoided had Kennedy lived.
Almost surely, much of that tumult was inevitable. But there is little doubt his slaying forever altered the course of American history.
“When you talk to people from that time about the Kennedy presidency, there was so much hope about what could be accomplished,'' said Barb Pickering, a UNO communications professor. “Even now when people talk of JFK, you hear a lot of what-ifs.''
To truly appreciate Kennedy's impact on the presidency, one must first understand just how different he was from the grandfatherly men who occupied the White House over the three decades before.
Kennedy — at 43 still ranking as the youngest man elected to the office — exuded a charm, wit and flair that intoxicated his audiences. After Kennedy, presidential candidates would have to be perceived as possessing both style and substance if they were to have any hope of being elected.
Then throw in JFK's gorgeous wife, Jacqueline. She made fashion, well, fashionable, not afraid to wear a swimsuit in public or to put her own style touch on the stodgy White House. And she did it all while doing her part to birth and raise the children of the Baby Boom.
The attractive young couple seemed made for the new media age being ushered into the nation's living rooms. In 1950, 9 percent of homes in America had TVs. By the election year of 1960, nearly 90 percent did.
Kennedy quickly mastered the medium, even his routine press conferences becoming must-see TV. Images of the Kennedy children romping around the White House became staples of popular culture. Women of the Greatest Generation tried to emulate Jackie's hairdos. The family truly seemed like American royalty.
And to a nation that was booming economically, driving sleek, new air-conditioned cars and moving into homes in the boundless suburbs, the possibilities JFK presented seemed equally endless.
“He came along right as the United States was assuming its position of dominance in the world, and he exuded a sort of confidence and visionary quality for the future,'' said John Cavanaugh, a Democrat who met Kennedy in Omaha as a boy and later served Nebraska in Congress. “We've never recaptured that sense of confidence and optimism.''
Perhaps no one took more hope and inspiration from Kennedy's election than the millions of Roman Catholics like Cavanaugh. At the time, it was widely believed that if the Catholic Kennedy was elected, the pope would be calling the shots in Washington.
“It sounds silly now, but in tremendously Protestant, rural Iowa where I grew up, that was real,'' said UNL political scientist John Hibbing.
Kennedy's election took down a barrier and opened other future possibilities — such as the nation's first black president.
In office, Kennedy committed an early blunder with the Bay of Pigs invasion, a disastrous, CIA-planned operation. Over time, though, national security would arguably emerge as a Kennedy strength.
In the superpower showdown of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK successfully negotiated the removal of nuclear warheads from Cuba, taking the world away from the brink of annihilation. He later inked the world's first nuclear test ban treaty.
By creating the Peace Corps, he sowed U.S. goodwill in underdeveloped nations around the globe.
In his drive to best the front-running Soviets in space, Kennedy set a national goal of putting a man on the moon. It was an incredibly audacious dream, but one that ultimately unleashed an explosion of advancements in science and technology that still affect everyday life.
JFK's Vietnam war legacy is tougher to assess. By the time he was killed, he had put 16,000 U.S. advisers on the ground in southeast Asia, and some were dying. But he had also expressed reluctance to direct involvement in a ground war there.
Marc Selverstone, a University of Virginia scholar who has listened to secret White House tapes on Vietnam, said while Kennedy was committed to winning the war, it seems unlikely he would have gone all-in as Johnson did, to the tune of 500,000 American ground troops.
Yet it's impossible to know exactly how JFK would have responded to subsequent events, particularly when it became clear South Vietnam was losing the war.
“Kennedy didn't have to confront Vietnam in the same way LBJ did,'' Selverstone said. “His legacy benefited from that timing.''
Domestically, Kennedy took advantage of the economic boom and passed an income tax cut that Republican administrations after him would hold up as a model.
Though Kennedy was sympathetic toward the plight of blacks in the South, he initially treaded carefully on civil rights, trying to hold together the Democratic South that had helped him get elected.
But when police dogs and fire hoses were turned loose on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham in May 1963, Kennedy had seen enough.
He became the first president to declare that civil rights and integration were moral issues the nation should fight for. Upon his death, with master legislator Johnson invoking the president's memory, Congress passed JFK-introduced legislation that became the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Kennedy was just beginning his 1964 re-election bid when he was cut down. That's when the Kennedy-administration-as-Camelot mythology was born. Jackie summoned a reporter and repeated the final refrain from one of JFK's favorite musicals:
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
In reality, no one knows how much Kennedy's light would have dimmed had he remained in office, as it inevitably does as presidents face the challenge of governing a diverse and divided nation. And as he helped break down the historic barriers between elected officials' public and private lives, it's also hard to guess what would have happened if his serial womanizing had become common knowledge then.
“We see today that private lives are no longer private,'' said Rick Witmer, a Creighton University political scientist. “He may have been the embodiment of that transition.''
But even the revelation of Kennedy's affairs has done little to tarnish his legacy. To know the truth of that, you only have to look at opinion polls.
When Gallup in 2010 polled the popularity of presidents over the last half century, Kennedy came out No. 1 with 85 percent approval, with Ronald Reagan second at 74 percent.
When polled against presidents across the ages, JFK falls not far below Rushmorian giants like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
In many ways today, JFK remains to America the president of Nov. 22, 1963, just before the first fateful shot.
The smiling president is seated in the limo next to Jackie and waving to adoring onlookers. Indeed, a man frozen in time.