“So many things will be said about Kennedy in the future, and the myths are already so thick, that without doubt the man himself will soon be lost in the myth … his particular style was such to captivate myth-makers, who will find in his love of children and in the beauty of his wife much to work with.”
– Theodore White, “The Making of the President”
This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Kennedy himself once said that in the 20th century, there were two events for which most Americans remember where they were when they heard the news – Pearl Harbor and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. We can now add Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001, to that list. A 1999 Gallup Poll rated JFK’s assassination as the seventh most important event of the last century, ahead of the Depression, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Watergate.
Sorting out his presidency is a complicated job. Slightly less than 50 percent of Americans voted for Kennedy in his narrow one-state victory over Richard M. Nixon (New York provided the key electoral votes). In the last Gallup Poll taken before his death, JFK’s job approval rating had slipped to “only” 59 percent, mainly because white Southerners defected due to the administration’s civil rights bill. But immediately after his death, 65 percent of Americans claimed to have voted for him. Even among the group most hostile to him, “anti-Kennedy Southerners,” 62 percent felt his death was “the loss of someone very close and dear.”
Due to the then-new television satellite technology, the whole world’s attention was focused on one place, Arlington Cemetery, for his funeral – a first in the history of the human race. The cool courage shown by his family, especially his widow, Jackie, and son, John Jr., helped cement JFK’s status as an American legend. After his burial, in an interview with historian Theodore White, Jackie labeled her husband’s White House tenure as the American version of Camelot.
In White’s words: “A magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”
A decade after JFK’s death, Newsweek noted that “revisionist” historians were making short work of the Camelot myth, almost gleefully pointing out the administration’s flaws – from foreign policy mistakes to a lack of courage on domestic issues. Some liberal intellectuals found him reckless in foreign policy and hesitant on domestic issues like civil rights and poverty. British historian Eric Hobsbawm called JFK “the most dangerous and megalomaniac” president ever. Meanwhile, conservatives found him weak and indecisive in Cuba, where his future successor Nixon wrote that JFK “enabled the United States to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory.”
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said the Cuban Missile Crisis “was actually a defeat … all that happened was the agreement: ‘OK, you can have your man down there permanently.’ ” Henry Kissinger referred to Kennedy’s presidency as a joke and asked: “What, exactly, did he do?” Critics from all sides agreed that he was more interested in projecting his image than getting things done. Historian Daniel Boorstin called him “an optical illusion,” while William F. Buckley wrote: “Nothing that Mr. Kennedy did in the way of public policy was either singular or enduring in effect.” Kennedy speechwriter and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. complained that “Kennedy revisionism has kindled in some people a growing resentment, bordering on rage.”
But those were only politicians and intellectuals. Ordinary Americans still have largely warm feelings about JFK.
Democrats used to call Ronald Reagan the “Teflon president” because bad news never seemed to stick to him. But JFK was the real Teflon king. Nothing – not stories of his womanizing, or presiding over a gridlocked Congress, or being possibly linked to plots to murder foreign dictators like Fidel Castro in Cuba or Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam – has diminished the public’s affection for him.
A Gallup Poll in 1999 asked Americans who they admired most in the 20th century. JFK came in third, behind Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. Despite JFK’s failure to pass his legislative program, the Kennedy legend has remained as indestructible as those of Washington and Lincoln. So, for rank-and-file Americans, Camelot still lives.
But forget Camelot. How did the Kennedy administration stack up in policy and historical terms? Despite its abbreviated nature, the administration has a mixed record of success and failure. First, we’ll deal with the good aspects of his legacy, and then the bad.
Super salesmanship: An old history professor of mine, Dr. P.F. Palermo, called JFK the “first movie-star president.” He was the last president to have across-the-board popularity, averaging a post-1945 record-high 67 percent in the Gallup Poll. Like Reagan, he could move voters almost anytime he wanted by going on TV. Like Roosevelt, he was skillful at letting an issue like civil rights ripen in the public mind and then coming in with an effective P.R. blitz. But there’s the rub.
Inspiring the young: Until Barack Obama, JFK was the last president to be popular with younger voters outside the South. When he asked American youth to sacrifice, they joined the Peace Corps in record numbers, thus helping the U.S. image overseas. As the youngest president ever elected, at age 43, he was the first president since Teddy Roosevelt to have young children in the White House, thus also increasing his appeal to voters under 30 – as did his great sense of humor and media savvy.
Peace-time boom: Kennedy promoted the “New Economics” of stimulating the economy by deliberately running deficits through a combination of tax cuts and spending increases. The short-term results were spectacular: the Gross National Product nearly doubled in the ’60s, the unemployment rate dropped below 5 percent while inflation remained moderate until 1965. But there would be longer-term problems.
Civil rights advocacy: During his Senate career in the 1950s, JFK rarely focused on civil rights. During the 1960 campaign, he criticized the Eisenhower administration for failing “by the stroke of a pen” to ban discrimination in federal housing programs. Then, shocked by the violence of the Birmingham demonstrations (where four young black girls were killed in a church firebombing) and confronted by a surging civil rights movement, JFK finally took his brother’s advice (Attorney General Robert Kennedy) and jumped aboard the civil rights bandwagon. JFK gave moving speeches that helped the public come to a consensus that segregation should end. (“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”) While he died before his civil rights bill passed, it was well on the way in the fall of 1963. White reported that Kennedy was the least popular Democrat among black leaders in 1960. But the black vote helped him win and eventually he was beloved in the black community, an affection proved when his brother ran for president in 1968 and received almost 100 percent of the black vote.
Crisis leader: University of Houston professor Richard Murray commented that Kennedy “really earned his pay” by peacefully resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Some of his more hawkish advisers like Dean Acheson were eager to attack even if it resulted in World War III. But cooler heads, led by Robert Kennedy, prevailed and the gravest crisis since Pearl Harbor had a negotiated settlement. British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said, “The way Bobby and his brother played this hand was absolutely masterful.” Historians also give JFK credit for smoothly handling emergencies over integration in Birmingham and the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi and the steel crisis where he forced Big Steel to back down from inflationary price increases.
Immigration and ethnicity: The Kennedys also sponsored the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which abolished nationality quotas and opened the way for millions of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Since Latinos and Asians provided President Obama’s margin of victory, he owes the Kennedys a debt of gratitude. Almost as important, Kennedy broke the “religious jinx” by becoming the first Catholic president. His death also hastened the end of the “Catholic issue” in national politics. Since 1960, numerous Catholics in both parties have run for office and their religion has simply not been an issue. Being the nation’s first non-Protestant president, Kennedy served as a powerful “social battering ram” that helped open up power to women and minorities.
Apollo space program: This is Kennedy’s greatest success, and an intergalactic one. Unlike civil rights or Medicare, he actually presided over the passage. In 1961, Kennedy outlined a goal of putting an American on the moon before 1970 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin accomplished exactly that in 1969. Besides the pride of this achievement, much of the high-tech boom that followed has its roots in the space program.
There’s the good side, now for the bad:
Congressional failure: For nearly all of his term, a conservative coalition – where non-liberal Republicans traded opposition to civil rights in exchange for Southern Democrats opposing social spending – combined to throttle Kennedy’s domestic agenda. While he did pass a few minor bills, like increasing the minimum wage and sending aid to distressed areas, much of the important legislation was passed under his successor Lyndon B. Johnson. As Schlesinger was forced to admit: “Kennedy promised, Johnson delivered.”
Foreign policy mistakes: The failed Bay of Pigs invasion has become synonymous with the word “debacle” – it caused JFK to weep. His Vienna summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev may have sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis because he thought Kennedy too immature. He also increased the U.S. commitment in South Vietnam despite private doubts. In the fall of 1963, JFK made ambivalent statements to Walter Cronkite: “In the final analysis, it is their war. … But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw.” The guess here is that he would not have escalated the war in his second term, but Schlesinger called Kennedy’s Southeastern Asia policy “the fatal error of his presidency.” (LBJ quickly escalated in Vietnam in 1965 after hinting he wouldn’t).
Overexposure and disillusionment: The flip side of charisma is the hangover when all the excitement fades. As British journalist Henry Fairlie pointed out, any presidency that overpromises is bound to end in disappointment. And if JFK’s alleged affairs were discovered, his second term would have looked much like Bill Clinton’s in trying to stave off an impeachment crisis.
Economic excess: While his administration’s economic stimulus package worked immediately, the long-term effect (especially exacerbated by the Vietnam War) was that the inflation rate doubled in the ’60s and ’70s, eventually doing severe damage to the economy and the Democratic Party.
So what are we left with? A supremely charismatic leader who responded well to pressure. We simply don’t know whether he would have avoided the economic and foreign policy mistakes of his successors, nor can we be sure that scandal wouldn’t have wrecked his presidency. But we can safely say that any president who leaves the nation in even slightly better shape than he found it can hardly be called a failure.
Some of the Kennedy-Johnson ideas worked like a charm, while others didn’t turn out so well. I’d give him an “incomplete” grade for obvious reasons, but if forced to choose, I’d rate him in the “above average” category of presidents – as even polls of conservative historians have done. The ethnic minorities he championed are a growing share of the voters, thus almost guaranteeing his continuing popularity with the public.
The 1973 Newsweek article about Kennedy revisionism ended by comparing JFK to the Roman Emperor Trajan, “who presided over the high-water mark of the empire.” Kennedy presided over a nation whose basic industries were still producing jobs, that had never lost a war, that was developing a social conscience, whose cities hadn’t yet burned and whose leaders weren’t threatened with the prospect of resignation, before Vietnam, Watergate and the ’60s riots.
Former history teacher Alan Anderson stated that if one combined JFK’s personality with Johnson’s legislative record, the first five years of the ’60s – from Kennedy’s nomination in July 1960 to before Johnson really escalated the Vietnam War in August 1965 – brought peace, prosperity, consensus, optimism and racial and technological progress. In short, they may have been the best years in American history, certainly in living memory. And besides sympathy, that is why the Kennedy legend has lived on.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California. He is the co-author of “California After Arnold” and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America,” a study of national politics.