The abbreviated presidency and unfinished life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is, 48 years after his murder in Dallas, one enduring subject in our politics that can launch a thousand debates.
Was Kennedy a mediocre, adequate or great president? Is the “myth” of Camelot or the “substance” of a star crossed and tragic tenure just so much rosy memory or was Kennedy’s short presidency a grand testament to a simpler, elegant, even better time?
Would Kennedy have avoided Vietnam or would his hawkish anti-Communism have taken us precisely where Lyndon Johnson eventually did? And just who was Kennedy? Was he the pampered, womanizing son of vast wealth who floated through his 1,000 days with little to show for it or was he the tough, demanding, even brutally efficient Irish-Catholic intellectual who overcame debilitating health problems to be the cool head in the room handling the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Since everyone seems to have a Kennedy opinion these days, I’ll offer my own: Kennedy was all of the above and, curiously, the complexity of the man, the inability to fit him neatly into a liberal box, the roguish charm masking a unrelenting ambition make him all the more interesting. Like all truly fascinating people, Jack Kennedy was many men – all touched by unthinkable tragedy – and that, I believe, is why the fascination with him never seems to diminish.
The Kennedy Cult
Ross Douthat, the young conservative columnist for the New York Times set off the most recent round of Kennedy introspection with a piece entitled “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Douthat set out to debunk three of what he sees as the most offensive Kennedy “myths” – that JFK was a good president who, had he lived, might have been a great one; that he would have kept us from the awful Vietnam disaster and that Kennedy governed during a time of vitriolic right wing hatred of everything he did and stood for.
Summing up, Douthat wrote of Kennedy: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame.”
Kennedy’s best and most even handed biographer, Robert Dallek, felt compelled to respond to Douthat’s “anti-Kennedy overkill” with a letter to the editor. Dallek’s book – An Unfinished Life – was the first to report in detail on Kennedy’s health problems and remains the best and most comprehensive story of the man.
“No serious historian,” Dallek wrote to the Times, “would suggest that John F. Kennedy’s unfinished presidency deserves to be ranked with those of Washington, Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he deserves better than Mr. Douthat gives him.”
Dallek has written elegantly and convincingly about why it is that Kennedy’s reputation still soars and Ronald Reagan’s, as well. Dallek argues it has less to do with bills passed or wars won than with the sense of hope and possibility both men brought to the bully pulpit of the White House.
“What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for,” Dallek wrote recently. “Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.”
“The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums,” Dallek wrote. “All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.”
For as long as we debate the legacy of Vietnam there will questions of whether Kennedy, had he lived to be re-elected in 1964, would have been smart enough to keep the U.S. commitment to southeast Asia in check. The late Idaho Sen. Frank Church was convinced, as he told me in the late 1970’s, that Kennedy would never have committed U.S. ground troops in the way Johnson did. Church’s opinion was also held by Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorensen, among many others.
Truth be told there is no way of knowing what he would have done, but the lessons he learned from both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis surely had an impact on Kennedy who may have been, in terms of American and world history, the best read president since Teddy Roosevelt.
Kennedy is also the subject of two current best sellers by Stephen King and Chris Matthews. King’s massive new book titled simply 11/22/63 imagines what might have been – the Kennedy assassination foiled by a time traveler. Matthews’ book – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero – is an unabashed valentine to a kind of political leader that Matthews argues no longer seems to exist.
As to the times when Kennedy governed, Frank Rich’s recent piece in New York Magazine draws parallels between 1963 and 2011. “What defines the Kennedy legacy today,” Rich writes, “is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.”
Rich has been defending his piece against, among others Ross Douthat. Rich’s “delusional” piece, in the view of another conservative commentator, uses “tortured logic” to show that “President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right.” Lee Harvey Oswald was, of course, to the extent he had a political philosophy, more a Communist sympathizer than a John Bircher.
Still what really struck me in reading Rich’s take on 1963 were the selection of letters to the editor of the Dallas Morning News printed over the weeks before Kennedy made his fateful trip to Texas 48 Novembers ago.
A letter writer from Wichita Falls wrote in 1963: “The Kennedy regime tends to lead toward socialism, as shown in its soft policies regarding the Cuban situation and its constant concessions to the Soviet Union in nuclear-test-ban-treaty negotiations. The many failures of the administration are clearly shown to the public. The inefficiency of its policies has lost America prestige and has weakened our bonds with the major European countries.
“Any person who supports John Kennedy in 1964 not only is illiterate of the means of democracy but is supporting a truly socialistic regime.”
And this from a Kennedy opponent from Waco, who referred to the president as “One-Term John,” a politician so unpopular in “Central Texas that in the past three weeks I have had only one customer threaten to cease doing business with me because of remarks made concerning the dynasty and its accomplishments.
“In fact, I now expect business to pick up as the full impact of the truth finally makes its impression upon the party faithful who heretofore could neither see, hear, nor speak of the evils in a socialistic dictatorship until the confrontation by Gov. Wallace of naked federal power and encroachment upon state and individual rights at Tuscaloosa, Ala.”
The last reference, of course, was to Kennedy’s efforts to enforce federal law and permit two black students to enroll – over the schoolhouse door protests of Gov. George Wallace – at the University of Alabama.
(Kennedy’s role – some would say Kennedy’s reluctance – to push harder on civil rights is still regularly debated, as Ross Douthat and others have noted. Yet, appreciating Kennedy’s well-developed sense of humor, it’s easy to believe that he would appreciate the irony of the Crimson Tide’s quest for a national football title riding on the broad shoulders of team that in 2011 starts only five white players.)
The letters make a striking point. The hatred for John Kennedy, like Obama, was real and the misrepresentation of his views – JFK was no more a socialist than Obama – was palpable. A moderately dispassionate conservative today, one who dislikes everything Obama has done, would have to admit that those letters to a Dallas newspaper nearly a half century ago bares an eerie resemblance to today’s doings on FOX News.
The Kennedy Cult, or whatever you care to call it, persists because his presidency – both style and substance – still matters. It’s impact survives through generations. We don’t have great debates about the Cult of Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison because they did not help define a generation or bring a particular power of personality and passion to our politics. Few presidents have. Kennedy did.
We will be debating the importance of Kennedy – or Reagan for that matter – for as long as we care about what can occasionally be the uplifting quality of our politics. As Bob Dallek says, and this is particularly true at a time when our politics seem so polarized and unproductive, we hanker for the “right man (or woman) with the right formula.” If only it were that easy.
Perhaps the true enduring legacy of a John Kennedy is really much less complicated than it might appear. At his core Kennedy was serious and incredibly ambitious. He had an approach to the job of being a senator and a president. He was a genuine and talented student of history. He wrote and spoke well. He was curious and tough as a politician and demanding as a boss. Matthews relates the story of Kennedy firing a long-time friend who he came to believe wasn’t doing his job well enough. At the same time he inspired tremendous loyalty and great affection and still does.
In short, the Kennedy legacy is one of leadership lifted by inspiration. The guy had it and we still gravitate to it and that is the real Cult of Kennedy.