Term in Office: 35th president, 1961-1963
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: Massachusetts
When we discussed Zachary Taylor, we dwelt on how difficult it was to talk about historical figures wrapped up in counterfactuals and might-have-beens. That problem increases exponentially with someone like John Kennedy, especially since the 50th anniversary of his untimely death put him back in the national conversation. Kennedy has, in the intervening years, become a symbol for everything the 1960s should have been, but weren’t. If you are a hawk, you probably admire Kennedy’s ability to stand up to the Soviets. If you are a dove, perhaps you admire the nuclear arms limitations he reached. If you are an idealist, you may look back fondly at Food for Peace or Peace Corps. If you are a small-government conservative, maybe you harbor a certain love of Kennedy; his “ask not what your country can do for you” can certainly read as an indictment of post-Kennedy liberalism, and he did sign into law some significant tax cuts, especially for top earners. (See Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative for a glimpse of this semi-plausible, but ultimately wrongheaded, argument.) Indeed, in one of the worst movies ever made, An American Carol, in which a Michael Moore doppleganger undergoes a Scrooge-like conversion to Fox News-style patriotism, Kennedy is portrayed as the quintessential American president. Whoever you are, chances are you can make a case for Kennedy as a top-ten president that fits your own peculiar set of ideological blinders.
I’d like to make this case: John Kennedy was surely an above-average president, and showed a remarkable ability to learn on the fly and recover from mistakes, a talent only the very best presidents demonstrate. The maladroit handling of the Bay of Pigs disaster was followed by a public apology and a skillful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis further down the road, where Kennedy sought advice, but came to his own conclusions: a quarantine that avoided outright nuclear war that simultaneously gave the USSR a way to save face while backing down. I’ll talk about this more when I compare Kennedy to my #13 choice, but his decision-making on that day ranks among the best examples of a president handling an emergency. Kennedy’s biggest problem is one that should be familiar to those who follow the news today: a road-blocking Congress. To explore this, let’s look at his background a bit.
Frankly, Kennedy wasn’t quite ready to be president; he hadn’t quite worked for it. It wasn’t, as his detractors said in 1960, youth or inexperience, as such. By the time he was elected, he had held high office for 12 years. When you think about it, that total beats out Reagan (8 years), Carter (4 years), George W. Bush (6 years), Barack Obama (4 years), Truman (10 years) and is only 2 years less than alleged elder statesman Richard Nixon had in 1968, if you add his time in Congress and as vice-president together. So, no, the 12 years part is fine; if anything it is above average. Rather, it was Kennedy’s Potemkin resume: he went to Harvard, his grades were okay, but not stellar, and yet somehow his senior thesis got published. With the help of a publicist, his almost court-martialable neglect in the Navy was spun to make him a war hero. With custom-drawn boundaries, he easily won a House seat. With even more help from ghostwriters, Profiles in Courage, a book largely ghostwritten for him, became a Pulitzer Prize-winner. With an endless supply of charm and money, and an ability to flaunt rules and restrictions that got in the way, JFK skated from triumph to triumph, but with little real accomplishment to show for it. In the same way, he simply outspent everyone to win the 1960 Democratic nomination over more qualified figures like Lyndon Johnson, Adlai Stevenson, Stu Symington, and Hubert Humphrey. For all the talk of anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1960 election, it was far more of a blessing than a curse; he cruised to office with 80% of the Roman Catholic vote.
Wait a minute, though– why am I being so critical of a guy who is still #14 on my list of presidents? That’s still a great outcome and reflective of a strong presidency. In the same way that Reagan’s greatest contributions to the presidency were oratorical and leaden with symbolism, the same could be said of Kennedy. He wins lots of points for vision. If we look to our leaders for inspiration, Kennedy is one of the greatest of American presidents, and it is small wonder that almost everyone from that era, including committed Republicans, remembers him fondly. He taught us to look to the heavens and put a man on the moon. He masterfully used television for press conferences and taking his messages directly to the American people, earning a spot on my Mount Rushmore of Great Communicators.* After the drab styles of Truman and Eisenhower, he made it cool to be smart and witty again. On lots of important but ephemeral levels, he is a great president: making Americans proud of their country, enhancing the country’s standing abroad, and so on. The problem is this: where are the accomplishments? They are there, but are they really so numerous and so earth-shattering that he belongs in the top 10? I say “no”, and here’s why:
I put Kennedy in the category of stonewalled visionary. The dirty little secret of the Kennedy presidency, especially when you compare him to Ike or LBJ is his poor relationship with Congress. Lots of great JFK ideas never achieved the traction to get off the ground. The Democrats’ platform in 1960 called for immigration reform (the chauvinist rules from the 1920s were still in place), full employment, greater equality for women, and an Economic Bill of Rights. JFK just could not find a way to get it through Congress. The Democrats had majorities in both houses, but too many committee chairs were grizzled old Dixiecrats who wanted no part of these reforms, and Kennedy just couldn’t find the right ways to cajole them. Some of these were hopeless causes with the Dixie caucus, but not all; I have to think that if JFK had done his job better as a senator, he would have found a way.
Speaking of Congress, let’s look at civil rights for a little while. Kennedy’s first major judicial appointee was William Howard Cox, a deeply segregationist friend of Mississippi senator James Eastland, who did a great deal of harm from the bench for years. And yet, counterbalancing this, he put Thurgood Marshall on the Federal Court of Appeals, the first African-American so designated. This ambivalence shows how we tend to view Kennedy as a crucial part of the civil rights narrative, but he wasn’t, really. We remember two things about Kennedy and civil rights: a phone call to Martin Luther King (ballsy, considering how he needed the South to win, but largely symbolic), and his federalizing the National Guard to integrate Ole Miss was done primarily a “law and order” tactic designed to put a recalcitrant governor in his place. Kennedy’s inability to strongarm or threaten the South, or get large numbers of Republicans on board, meant that meaningful civil rights reform was not going to happen during his administration. Robert Dallek was right when he said, “the president’s words did little to advance the cause of civil rights or ease the tensions that were erupting into sporadic violence.” When it came to civil rights legislation, Kennedy was far more useful as a martyr than a shepherd.
While many on his national security team did ruinous things during his and Lyndon Johnson’s administrations, lots of JFK appointees were very, very, very good; he had one of the strongest cabinets in American history. Stu Udall was a far-thinking conservationist hero and is my pick for the best Secretary of the Interior ever. Arthur Goldberg deftly handled strike negotiations and battled employment discrimination as Secretary of Labor. While RFK as Attorney General understandably rubbed people the wrong way as an act of nepotism, he was brilliant in his office; one of my colleagues at UB wrote a dissertation on his singular role in stopping organized crime. When you consider others who played important roles– George McGovern as Food for Peace guy, Adlai Stevenson as UN ambassador, Chester Bowles as Ambassador to India, George Ball as Undersecretary of State. Sarge Shriver in charge of Peace Corps, Arthur Schlesinger as, well, the guy writing stuff down, you have a pretty talented group on your hands.
This eye for talent could also be a double-edged sword. David Halberstam wrote of the sad irony that it was “the best and the brightest” minds that got the country into southeast Asia fighting an unpopular war to prop up an unpopular regime. Robert Dean makes a similar case in his groundbreaking book Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy. A culturally elite and hyper-masculine cult of of Cold Warriors, all educated at the best prep schools and ivy-league universities, were inculcated with an interventionist worldview, premised on strength and power, and not nebulous idealism. These were smart, rational men who nonetheless presided over a stupid, illogical and often cruel foreign policy that ultimately led to the Vietnam War. One of the less appealing elements of the Kennedy administration is its overbearing hubris. He constantly worked to undermine world leaders opposed to American aims or insufficiently committed to or competent in fighting the Cold War. He gave the greenlight to ousting Diem in South Vietnam, although he did not intend for him to get killed. He misused the CIA for a variety of attempts to get Fidel Castro out of power, including the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, none of which succeeded. These cloak and dagger operations, born of Kennedy’s background and possibly his love of Ian Fleming novels, furthered the tensions of the Cold War. Not for a minute do I believe Oliver Stone’s ridiculous argument that Kennedy was on the verge of dialing back the Vietnam War on the eve of his assassination.
One also has to account, to a certain extent, for private life as well, because when you are president, nothing remains private for very long. Kennedy’s long list of shady associates and illicit love affairs with movie stars or mob mistresses, or even, in his youth, German collaborators becomes a major, major problem. In the Cold War era, this was much more than merely being an unfaithful husband; it was a genuine national security risk that made the most powerful man in the world susceptible to blackmail. Kennedy is extraordinarily lucky he was president in the early 1960s where complicity with the press could be achieved– can you imagine a Kennedy administration with an active Drudge Report? Had he lived, he would have presided over an era where that trust eroded terribly. It is likely that Kennedy would have faced a massive public falling out, and may have had to resign, if his dalliances became public knowledge.
One still wonders: when Dion sings about “Brother John” in his lachrymose hit “Abraham, Martin and John” and how he “freed a lot of people,” it is difficult to see just who he is talking about. John Kennedy’s record might not live up to John Kennedy’s legend. But then again, perhaps nobody’s record could do that. Despite some missteps, maybe Kennedy was, as Thurston Clark argues in JFK’s Last Hundred Days, one the verge of becoming a great president, transformed by Diem’s shocking death and his infant son’s tragically short life into become a more conscientious husband, and a sharper skeptic of the chilling calculus of the Cold War. We’ll never know, but the record we do have of JFK’s 1,000 days in office suggests great vision, but a limited record of accomplishment. His record shows glimpses of vibrant, once-in-a-generation creativity– Food for Peace and the Peace Corps were gobsmacking brilliant ways of engaging the world without firing a single bullet. He inspired countless people to enter public service as a noble profession. It may be, after all is said and done, that the image and the reality cannot be untangled. Kennedy remains something of a generational mirror, and we see darkly through him, into our hopes and aspirations for one of America’s most turbulent decades.
* McKinley, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan. McKinley for pioneering the press conference, FDR for radio, and Kennedy and Reagan for television.