Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29

Today would have been John F. Kennedy's 92nd birthday.

What's the verdict on this much-talked-about politician, 45 years after the assassination that ended his presidency? I think he's the most overrated president in American history.

But what about the Cuban Missile Crisis? Wasn't that an example of great presidential leadership?

I agree that Kennedy showed admirable restraint in his response to the Soviet provocation. The missiles were removed, without igniting nuclear war.

But would the Soviets have pressed their luck against Kennedy in that way, if he had not appeared weak toward the Soviet Union and Cuba, earlier in his presidency? Kennedy declined to follow through on his commitment to back the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, by exiles from that island country, in 1961. Later that year, he put in a poor performance at a summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. An emboldened Khrushchev had his East German allies construct the Berlin Wall shortly thereafter, with no significant response from Kennedy.

Is it any wonder that the Soviets continued to push, until Kennedy needed to bring the world to the brink of nuclear armageddon, in order to belatedly take a stand?

On the domestic side, Kennedy advocated a tax cut, with the same rationale that his Democratic Party denigrated, when Ronald Reagan made the same case, 20 years later. Kennedy's lack of legislative acumen, demonstrated throughout his 14-year congressional tenure, was on display once more as he failed to shepherd the tax cut through Congress. That, and the first significant civil rights legislation, were left for his successor Lyndon Johnson to accomplish.

Increasing American involvement in Vietnam was another legacy to his successors. Johnson probably made more serious mistakes in Vietnam than Kennedy did. But Kennedy cannot escape blame for the mishandling of that situation.

So, why is he rated as highly as he is? He was handsome and charming. And, with his early death, he will be eternally handsome and charming.

Kennedy had high poll numbers throughout his short presidency. They were higher than his 49.7% of the popular vote, when he barely won an electoral college majority in 1960. But martyrdom is what transformed him into a demigod.

As I write this, a stone's throw away from John F. Kennedy Boulevard, in Philadelphia, I'm reminded of the rush to rename everything from Idlewild Airport to Cape Canaveral after the late president, in the immediate aftermath of his assassination.

His wife Jacqueline, a devotee of high culture, managed to make it look as though her husband shared those interests. But all indications are to the contrary. When interviewed by William Manchester, shortly after the assassination, she made the dubious claim that his favorite song was the show tune Camelot, from the musical of the same name. Thus, that title, only after the fact, was bestowed on his presidency. That Washington buzzword "spin-doctor" was not yet in use at that time, but it could definitely have been applied to Jacqueline Kennedy.

1 comment:

Terry L. Johnson said...

Agree with your comments about Kennedy's softeness with the USSR at the time and how he was pushed.

The years have softened the focus on his presidency and what were, in fact, weakenesses have been protrayed over the years as strenghts. Curious.

Form over substance? Perhaps.

That Kennedy would wear makeup and Nixon would not during "the debate" was perhaps the crucial difference in electing Kennedy.

It would be in keeping then that it is the image of Kennedy to which we cling rather than the accomplishments.