New York Times November 21, 2013
WASHINGTON — Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he remains an object of almost universal admiration. And yet, particularly this year, his legacy has aroused the ire of debunkers who complain that Kennedy is unworthy of all this adulation.
“John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century,” wrote the journalist Thomas E. Ricks. “He spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”
He was, they say, all image and no substance, a shallow playboy whose foreign policy mistakes and paltry legislative record undermine any claim to greatness. His assassination, personal attributes of good looks and charm, joined to Jacqueline Kennedy’s promotion of a Camelot myth, have gone far to explain his popularity.
Such criticism not only gives short shrift to Kennedy’s real achievements as a domestic and foreign policy leader, but it also fails to appreciate the presidency’s central role: to inspire and encourage the country to move forward, a role that Kennedy performed better than any president in modern memory.
The litany of complaints against Kennedy is a long one. Critics scoff at his image as a devoted family man: They complain that he was, as Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic, “a compulsive, even pathological adulterer,” whose reckless self-indulgence threatened to destroy his presidency.
Critics also point to his hidden health problems: Would voters have elected him over Richard M. Nixon if they had full knowledge of his Addison’s disease or other potentially disabling ailments? And what does it say about his character that he concealed his condition?
As for his presidency, critics find it difficult to understand why anyone would consider him more than an average chief executive, if even that.
They are especially critical of his civil rights record. His delay in signing an executive order ending segregation in public housing, which he had promised during the 1960 campaign; his appointment of segregationist federal judges; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s complaint that Kennedy lacked the “moral passion” to fight for equal treatment of blacks — all of this has convinced some historians that Kennedy’s later decision to ask for a civil rights law was pure political expediency.
Kennedy’s critics also find fault with his foreign policies, especially on Cuba and Vietnam. The Bay of Pigs failure and Operation Mongoose, the plan to assassinate or at least depose Fidel Castro, supposedly opened the way to the missile crisis and demonstrated his inexperience and the poor judgment of an overzealous cold warrior.
And Kennedy’s decision to increase the number of military advisers in Vietnam, combined with his alleged support for the coup that killed South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, are said to be preludes to Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous war.
All of this has merit. But Kennedy’s thousand-day presidency is more impressive for its gains than its shortcomings.
Most notably, he saved the world from a nuclear war with his astute diplomacy during the October 1962 confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba. As he privately said at the time, the military leadership wanted to bomb and invade, but no one alive then would survive to tell them they were wrong.
And while critics focus on the minutiae of those 13 days, Kennedy’s real success was what came after.
Eager to avoid a replay of Soviet-American tensions over Cuba, he followed the crisis with private expressions of interest in a rapprochement with Mr. Castro. More important, he reached an agreement with the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev for a nuclear test ban treaty that eliminated radiation fallout in the atmosphere.
As for Vietnam, what matters is that Kennedy successfully resisted pressure to send anything more than military advisers, a stance that was a likely prelude to complete withdrawal from the conflict. There is solid evidence of his eagerness to end America’s military role in that country’s civil war.
And while Kennedy did not achieve as much in terms of legislation as he wanted, his record has to be seen in context.
His legislative agenda was held hostage to a conservative Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers who saw his reforms as a threat to racial segregation. In response, he established a formal system for communicating with every allied member in Congress and kept a systematic accounting of various bills and their weekly progress. His decision to put a civil rights bill before Congress in June 1963 was a shining moment of political courage; it jeopardized his hold on Southern voters who had given him a slim margin of victory in 1960.
Moreover, had he lived to run against Barry M. Goldwater in 1964, Kennedy would have undoubtedly won a large victory and been in a position to pass his major bills. It would have won him acclaim as an impressive reformer in a league with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. His health problems and womanizing cannot be ignored, but they were neither unique to him nor proved to be a problem in office.
But Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.
Kennedy saw the presidency as the vital center of government, and a president’s primary goal as galvanizing commitments to constructive change. He aimed to move the country and the world toward a more peaceful future, not just through legislation but through inspiration.
Kennedy’s presidential ambitions rested on his understanding of what Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and F.D.R. had done. Like them, he relied on the spoken word, but he had the advantage of television in reaching millions of people around the globe. And like those predecessors, he saw the need for actions that gave meaning to his rhetoric.
The requests in his Inaugural Address — for Americans to put their country ahead of their selfish concerns and to peoples everywhere to join in a new quest for peace — found substance in the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. His call in May 1961 for a manned mission to the Moon and his “peace speech” in June 1963 urging Americans to re-examine their attitude toward the Soviet Union were aimed at promoting national unity and international accord.
Compared with other recent presidents whose stumbles and failures have assaulted the national self-esteem, memories of Kennedy continue to give the country faith that its better days are ahead. That’s been reason enough to discount his limitations and remain enamored of his presidential performance.
Robert Dallek is a professor emeritus in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author, most recently, of “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.”