John Kennedy’s best biographer made a startling revelation recently that was both ominous and eerie and says a good deal about Kennedy’s appreciation of how history works.
Robert Dallak, author of An Unfinished Life, the best book on the 35th president, gave a speech recently in Ireland where he said Jackie Kennedy was told by her husband a year before his death that his assassination would protect his legacy. “If someone is going to kill me,” Kennedy told his wife, “it should happen now.”
The Kennedy comment is contained in an oral history interview that Mrs. Kennedy did in 1964 with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The comment came shortly after Kennedy’s success defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie Kennedy sat for a series of seven interviews that have been held all these years under lock and key. The material will finally be made public in September and will be featured in an ABC broadcast.
According to Dallek, Kennedy had one of Abraham Lincoln’s great biographers, David Herbert Donald, to the White House for a lecture. Kennedy asked the distinguished historian whether Lincoln would be as fondly remembered today if he had not been shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth as his second term was just beginning.
Donald said no. In all likelihood, Donald said, had he lived, Lincoln would have become caught up in the messy and protracted fights over Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where southern states were brought back into the Union and bitter battles raged over civil rights. As a result, Lincoln’s reputation as a great war leader may well have suffered. Kennedy, reflecting on that “what if” of history, then told his wife if someone was going to kill him, they best do it soon as his legacy would be more secure.
A few months later, Kennedy died at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy, therefore, is remembered as the glamorous and martyred young president who blundered into the Bay of Pigs, but took responsibility for the mess, who served as the cool head in the room during the Cuban Missile Crisis and expressed grave doubts about American involvement in Vietnam even as he sent U.S. advisers there.
So, what if? How would we think about JFK today had he lived to defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964 and serve out a second term? Would he have avoided the quagmire in southeast Asia? Liberated from re-election pressures, would Kennedy have stood up to the “domino theorists” who argued, mostly successfully, that the U.S. had to make a stand against Communist expansion in Indochina or the entire region would fall under influence of Moscow?
Would Kennedy have been as successful – or as committed – as Lyndon Johnson was in passing civil rights legislation? Would Kennedy have found a way to rapprochement with Castro? He loved his cigars, after all. And what of the Soviet Union? After taking the measure of Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis, would JFK have been able to cut a nuclear arms deal with the blustery, but very smart, Soviet leader?
And there is the second term factor. Generally second terms in the White House are susceptible to fatigue, drift and an almost inevitable diminishment of presidential power, no matter who is in the office. Would JFK have had a successful second term? He might well have beaten Goldwater badly, as Johnson eventually did in ’64, and had a mandate to act on a broad range of issues, or he might have squandered a big mandate and his popularity, as Franklin Roosevelt did after his big re-election victory in 1936.
This much is known. John Kennedy had a deep appreciation of history. We now know his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage benefited greatly from the deft wordsmithing of the late Ted Sorensen, but that hardly diminishes the reality of Kennedy’s understanding and insight into the wonderful political stories contained in his book. I’ve also always thought it interesting and telling that JFK had Schlesinger, a historian of the presidency, as a White House insider.
In surveys done in 2010, a third of Americans rank Kennedy as a “great president” and the vast majority says he was above average. The professional historians ranked him sixth in presidential leadership just ahead of Jefferson. Interestingly, Kennedy was the only president in the Top 10 ranked by historians who was elected only once.
As Bob Dallek has said: “For style and for creating a mood of optimism and hope — Kennedy on that count is as effective as any president the country has had in its history. The question for me is, 100 years from now, will he be remembered? … “
“At the moment, he does have this astonishing hold on the public mind.”
Kennedy, it seems, also had an ability to visualize his own legacy.