Why does the Kennedy legacy endure – indeed, seem to grow stronger – a half-century after his assassination? A recent Gallup poll of Americans finds that almost three quarters of respondents judge Kennedy to be an “outstanding” or “above average” president. That places JFK above all the post-FDR “modern” presidents, including Reagan, LBJ and Ike, in terms of public support. To be sure, some of this popularity is undoubtedly caused by the torrent of recent media coverage commemorating his death. But his high popularity is not a new phenomenon; JFK has been consistently ranked among the top presidents by the public in polls dating back several years. Here is the most recent Gallup poll:
Nor is there much evidence that this adulation will wane anytime soon. In the most recent Gallup poll JFK finds his strongest support among the youngest cohort of respondents; 83% of those aged 18-29 rate Kennedy “outstanding” or “above average”, compared to 67% of those aged 65 or older who place JFK in one of these two categories. Even as Kennedy the man recedes from direct memory, it seems, Kennedy the myth grows ever stronger.
Note that Kennedy’s public popularity, for the most part, outstrips his standing among scholars. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the problems with efforts by scholars to rank presidents, but suffice to say none of the scholarly rankings place JFK nearly as high as does the public. I examined 15 such academic polls that have been issued since JFK’s death, and he comes out as the 11th-ranked president, behind his three immediate predecessors FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Here are the top dozen presidents based on those polls. (Note that the rankings for those above JFK include polls issued before he became president.) :
|Franklin D. Roosevelt||
|Harry S. Truman||
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||
|James K. Polk||
|John F. Kennedy||
Kennedy’s average ranking among scholars places him among the “good” but not “great” presidents. That he does not rank higher reflects, in part, scholars’ collective judgment that Kennedy’s presidency lacks enduring substantive accomplishments. Indeed, as the spate of recent news specials remind us, Kennedy is perhaps better remembered for how he died than for what he accomplished while in office. Moreover, when we think of Kennedy as president, we tend to remember his words more than his deeds. His speeches include the stirring (and hawkish) inaugural address (“Ask not….”), his 1961 address to Congress setting the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and the 1963 speech at American University which in some respects anticipates the era of detente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
To be sure, the American University speech served as a prelude to JFK’s negotiation with the Soviets of a comprehensive ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which stands as one of his most noteworthy achievements. But that call for peace must be weighed against his sanction of the coup that killed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem*, thus tying that country’s fate more closely to the U.S., and laying the foundation for the subsequent escalation of the American military presence there. There is also JFK’s on-going obsession with toppling Castro, even after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. And even perhaps his most celebrated substantive accomplishment – his adept handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – has come under renewed scrutiny in light of recently declassified documents and newly-released audio recordings that more fully document his decisionmaking and the surrounding context during those fateful October days. (I’ve said nothing, of course, regarding Kennedy’s deplorable treatment of women.)
So what explains his enduring popularity, if not a record of sterling accomplishments? The answer, I think is a function of three related factors. The first is his youth. At 43, JFK was the youngest president ever elected, one who seemed to personally embody his oft-stated understanding of the presidency as the “vital center of action”. Never mind that Kennedy was in fact quite sick, and that he required a daily regimen of pills and injections to make it through the day. To most Americans unaware of the true state of his health, he was the emblem of the new, post-World War II baby-boom generation. It helped that he had a beautiful, soft-spoken wife and two delightful young children. And Kennedy was not shy about utilizing Jackie as a political asset – it was why she sat next to him in the convertible on that fateful day.
Second, Kennedy’s “vigah” was on full display to the nation because his presidency coincided with the maturation of television. When we think of television and Kennedy, of course, we focus first on that awful day in Dallas. But Kennedy was the first president to understand how to take advantage of this medium as a public relations tool, and in some respects, as with his televised press conferences, he set a standard that none of his successors fully matched. With his good looks, poise and appearance of ironic detachment, Kennedy projected a coolness that was perfectly suited for this new medium.
Third, and most important, his is an unfinished presidency. To most of us, Kennedy is frozen in time – forever young and thus judged not primarily by his middling record but by dreams for what might have been. Had he only lived….what possibilities! Those possibilities grow ever more grand, I think, the further the real JFK recedes in our memory. Then too, the current era of polarized partisan politics makes us yearn even more for our admittedly idealized vision of the Kennedy years – a time when politicians from both parties worked together in great national endeavors, such as putting a man on the moon. Today, by contrast, government is more likely to shutdown than to accomplish great things. Indeed, even little things, such as setting up a health care website, seem beyond its capabilities.
As the Kennedy presidency recedes in time, it has been gradually superseded in our memories by the myth that his time in office was a modern-day Camelot – a myth that Kennedy’s intimates, starting with Jackie, first seeded in the public consciousness in the days and months after his assassination. Less than two weeks after JFK’s assassination, Jackie summoned family friend and historian Teddy White to Hyannisport. She wanted to tell him something, she said. In the evening, after work, her husband often liked to play records, including one from the Broadway musical about King Arthur’s court. His favorite song came at the end, she said, and contained this line: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” According to White, Jackie told him: “There’ll be great presidents again — and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me — but there’ll never be a Camelot again.”
But Jackie had it wrong – Camelot lives on, if only in our idealized remembrance of a presidency that ended far too soon.
(I shared some of these thoughts on radio earlier today on Jane Lindholm’s Vermont Edition. As always, I want to thank Jane for making the visit an enjoyable experience – you can listen to the discussion here.)
*As several alert readers pointed out, I originally incorrectly had Nguyen Van Thieu, and not Diem, as the leader overthrown (and killed) in the coup that JFK authorized. Got it right in the radio broadcast, but not in the print version!