Fifty years after the death of John F. Kennedy, there’s no mystery about why his brief presidency remains an object of fascination: It was glamorous, photogenic, and cut short by an assassination that still seems an insoluble puzzle. Compared to the full-color images of Kennedy and his wife on our television screens this month, other figures of his era seem gray.
Still, it’s remarkable that Kennedy’s iconic stature in the eyes of most Americans has weathered half a century of assaults, some of them from his own archives, as the less savory side of Camelot has slowly come to light.
We’ve learned the details of his relentless womanizing, which extended to plying a 19-year-old White House intern with daiquiris and then having sex with her.
We’ve learned more about the perilous health of a man who in 1960 declared himself “the healthiest candidate for president,” including that he had Addison’s disease, a serious disorder of the adrenal gland, and that he relied on cocktails of painkillers injected by his physicians.
And we’ve learned that historians don’t think Kennedy was such a great president. As early as 1973, Harvard’s Richard Neustadt, who was not only a Kennedy fan but an occasional advisor, concluded sadly that JFK’s tenure had been undistinguished.
“I don’t think history will leave much space for John Kennedy,” Neustadt said then. “History is unkind to transition figures.... He will be just a flicker.”
A 1988 survey of historians named Kennedy the most overrated figure in American history. Since then, the verdict hasn’t improved much.
“Most historians think of him as an average or even below-average president,” said Robert Dallek, author of a widely praised (and largely admiring) JFK biography, “An Unfinished Life,” and a subsequent book on Kennedy’s Cabinet, “Camelot’s Court.”
“He never got any of his legislative initiatives passed. He was the architect of a failed policy in Cuba. It’s possible to look at his record and see it as a real misery.”
But that’s not how most Americans see it.
In a succession of Gallup polls, Kennedy is regularly ranked alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in the pantheon of great presidents — joined in recent years by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Part of Kennedy’s outsized stature can be attributed to his having been photogenic and witty, undeniable virtues in a chief executive.
But the public also seems to give JFK credit for accomplishments that weren’t actually his, such as the civil rights laws that Lyndon B. Johnson got passed. At the same time, he is not held responsible for the failures of his successor in Vietnam, even though he laid the foundation for an increased U.S. role in Southeast Asia. "[Kennedy] himself didn’t know what he would do” in Vietnam, Dallek told me. “He might have tried bombing.”
There’s at least one important issue on which Kennedy may deserve more credit than the public gives him: He helped remove nuclear weapons from the military options that presidents consider using. He took the first steps toward mutual arms reduction with the Soviet Union at a time when a nuclear war seemed plausible and arms control was politically risky.
As Dallek has written, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Kennedy’s day routinely included nuclear bombs in their recommendations to presidents in conflicts including Korea, Laos, Vietnam and Cuba.
Kennedy’s resistance to his generals’ pressure for escalation, especially in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and his decision in 1963 to negotiate a test ban treaty — the first significant arms control agreement with the Soviet Union — should be remembered as his most enduring legacy.
But that’s not what most Americans remember about JFK; the Cold War, all-consuming at the time, seems like ancient history now.
Instead, Kennedy is revered for his image and his ability to deploy stirring language of destiny and determination.
Look at those other names alongside Kennedy’s atop the Gallup poll’s list of most-admired recent presidents: Reagan and Clinton. What do they have in common? Not much, except that they cast their presidencies in terms of hope, not retrenchment. (Indeed, Reagan and Clinton consciously borrowed from JFK’s rhetoric.)
And in a sense, they all got lucky: Their successors didn’t fare as well. When we evaluate past presidents, we reconstruct our opinions retroactively. Kennedy wasn’t universally popular when he was in office, Reagan and Clinton even less so.
“Kennedy is remembered as a success mainly because of what came after,” Dallek noted: “Johnson and Vietnam. Nixon and Watergate.”
When we mourn Kennedy, we mourn the lost promise of the early 1960s, when the American economy delivered a good middle-class living to many and when American power believed itself capable of pacifying the world.
Kennedy’s tenure turned out to be the hinge between an age of optimism and an age of chaos.
“And it didn’t hurt that he was assassinated,” Dallek said. “He’s frozen in our minds at the age of 46.”