JFK's Legacy

Yesterday, while browsing through my favorite bookstore, I came across at least ten just-published books dealing with some facet of John F. Kennedy's life, career, and death. Add last year's best-selling Killing Kennedy by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, and we have about a dozen new or recent tomes dealing with America's 35th president as the nation prepares to observe the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Added to the literary avalanche will be the inevitable outpouring of print and electronic media stories about Kennedy and the "Camelot myth" -- which many believe was created after Kennedy's death by Jacqueline Kennedy, assisted by Theodore H. White in Life magazine.

All the print and electronic focus on him attests to the hold that John Fitzgerald Kennedy has on this country, half a century after his passing. Popular with the public while in office -- his approval ratings ranged from 83% to 56%, and averaged 70% -- his reputation has improved with time's passing. Although scholars do not list him at the top of presidential rankings, many public opinion polls find JFK rated #1, #2, or #3 among the 43 men who have served as Chief Executive. (The only presidents who consistently compete with JFK in public opinion polls are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, not necessarily in that order.)

November 22nd, 1963, was a long time ago. Has sufficient time passed to permit anything approaching a detached assessment of JFK's legacy?

The following essay represents an attempt to assess John Fitzgerald's legacy.

Let's begin by observing that JFK was a different kind of Democrat than today's "models." He was not even the same variety as brothers Robert (after 1963), and especially Edward ("Ted"), now said to be "last liberal lion" of the U.S. Senate. If JFK were alive today, and if his politics were the same as when he was alive, there are very good grounds to doubt that he would have been able to garner the Democrat Party's nomination for the highest elective office in the land. (One seriously doubts that JFK "Model 1960" would be electable in the People's Republic of Massachusetts.)

Many people forget how conservative his politics were. Never mind that the America of 1946-1963 was a different country than it is today. Liberal Democrats, such as Hubert Humphrey (MN), Frank Church (ID), or George McGovern (SD) disdained him.

We forget that JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, Sr., had been an outspoken conservative during the 1930s, and a friend of Joseph R. McCarthy, and that JFK was alleged to have "ducked" the Senate's vote to censor McCarthy in 1954. (He may have had good reason; he was recovering from major back surgery.)

Let's forget Kennedy's "failure" to vote against McCarthy in 1954. Let's focus, instead, on his record as a "Cold Warrior" in the late 1950s and early 1960s. How many people remember his charge of a "missile gap" -- which he and his advisors knew was false -- during the 1960 presidential campaign? His inaugural address was Cold War "fire bell in the night"; it was a ringing assertion of America's determination to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Some people forget that Kennedy's biggest failures -- the Bay of Pigs invasion in April, 1961, the failed Summit Conference with Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna in early June, 1961, and the Berlin Wall in August, 1961, and his biggest successes -- the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1963 -- were in the realm of foreign affairs.

Kennedy's record in the realm of domestic affairs lacks the triumphal highs and the disappointing lows he experienced in the international arena. His accomplishments were meager; there is no major domestic legislation attached to his name. The nation's economy, having recovered from the recession of 1958, was mostly on an even keel. Unemployment and inflation were low.

We forget, in this sphere, that Kennedy's boldest move was probably his call for a tax cut in 1962. (Imagine that, a Democrat president advocating reducing taxes; today, such a policy would be anathema to most Democrats! Indeed, when George W. Bush #43 sought to enlist the memory of Kennedy's call for lower taxation to stimulate the economy, leading Democrats, including brother Ted and daughter Caroline, objected.)

When most people are asked to recall JFK's domestic record, they think in terms of civil rights, especially southern blacks' struggle to end de jure segregation. Jim Crow was still flourishing in parts of the Deep South.

Actually, ferment over the civil rights issue began before Kennedy was elected president. President Dwight Eisenhower's nomination of Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was followed by the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division, and later the Arkansas National Guard, to enforce school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas in September, 1957. He also presided over the passage of two civil rights bills, one in 1957 and the second in 1960.

Ironically, Kennedy voted with southern, i.e., segregationist, Democrats against the 1957 bill. During the contretemps over the 1957 act, southerners referred to him as the "living antithesis of Earl Warren."

Thus, Kennedy began seeking the presidency with a reputation as a "moderate" on the civil rights issue. He only partially overcame that label during the 1960 campaign by telephoning Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wife when Dr. King was in a Birmingham, AL jail. Even so, 32% of blacks' votes went to Richard Nixon in 1960.

In truth, Kennedy was a "Johnny come lately" to the cause of civil rights, even though he is remembered for his decisions when the University of Alabama and then the University of Mississippi were integrated in 1962, and subsequently when the Birmingham, Alabama crisis exploded in the spring of 1963.

Perhaps the incident best associated with the civil rights movement in JFK's time was the March on Washington on August, 28, 1963. There, before the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to an estimated 200,000 and 300,000 people.

Kennedy had nothing to do with the event.

Any assessment of JFK's legacy has to include his philandering -- including, but not limited to, sharing a Mafia Don's mistress and allegations of an affair with Marilyn Monroe -- and what has been said to be taking "mind altering" drugs to cope with health-related issues, such as a bad back and Addison's Disease.

Some dismiss both, saying they were personal matters, extraneous to his performance as president. Others, especially after the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998, wonder if "chickens coming home to roost" should be so lightly discounted.

Finally, no assessment of JFK's legacy is complete without exploring, as James Piereson's 2007 book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, does so well, the devastating impact Kennedy's assassination had American culture.

Whatever one thinks of JFK, he remains a major American figure, for good or otherwise.

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