Fifty Years On, What JFK Did, and Didn’t, Achieve

Fifty years after JFK’s inaugural, presidential historian Robert Dallek observes that Kennedy remains the most popular American president even though his days in office didn’t yield many domestic successes and left only a few foreign policy achievements.

January 21, 2011

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Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s January 20, 1961, inaugural address, Robert Dallek, the presidential historian who wrote An Unfinished Life, John F. Kennedy, 1917-63, says Kennedy remains the most popular U.S. president. However, his thousand days in office didn’t yield many historic achievements, Dallek notes. Kennedy’s domestic agenda as president included initiatives on Medicare, civil rights, and other issues that didn’t get enacted until the Johnson administration. Kennedy did orchestrate some foreign policy successes, Dallek says, most notably avoiding a nuclear war with the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and negotiating a Limited Test Ban Treaty; the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was one for which Kennedy chastised himself. As for Vietnam, Dallek says, Kennedy wanted to limit U.S. involvement. Kennedy’s enduring mystique has to do with the fact that he lives in the public imagination as a perennially young man full of promise, says Dallek, and that the Kennedy family story combines tragedy and high achievement.

January 20 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, whose inaugural address is noted for its eloquence. How does Kennedy stand after all these years in the annals of American presidents?

Well, he certainly has a hold on the public’s imagination in this country. There was a Gallup poll asking Americans to assess the last nine presidents from Kennedy forward. In that poll, John Kennedy had an 85 percent approval rating. The closest to him was Ronald Reagan with 74 percent. Predictably at the bottom was Richard Nixon with 29 percent. Above him, with the surprising number of 47 percent, was George W. Bush. And then above Bush was Lyndon B. Johnson with 49 percent.

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He faced down the Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev without going to war. That was a major achievement of his presidency--preventing a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR.

How does this compare with all presidents?

When people in this country are asked who are the greatest presidents in American history, predictably they tell you: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. But then they add the names of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. So the puzzle is, why this extraordinary hold on the public? After all, Kennedy was president for only a thousand days. His domestic agenda was pretty barren. He had major initiatives: a big tax cut, a federal aid to education law, Medicare and civil rights. None of them passed during his presidency. They were all enacted by Lyndon Johnson [and] signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. Of course, in foreign policy there was the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961, after which Kennedy walked around for several days saying, "How could I have been so stupid?" He did have his great success in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when he faced down the Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, without going to war. That was a major achievement of his presidency--preventing a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR. And he did have the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed and approved by the Senate in October 1963, shortly before Kennedy’s assassination.

How did his assassination in November 1963 affect his standing in history?

I guess one could say that the assassination gives him this extraordinary hold on the public. But look at William McKinley, who was also assassinated, in September 1901. McKinley was a popular president, elected to a second term in 1900. He was assassinated by an anarchist barely six months into his second term. Fifty years after McKinley was assassinated, hardly anybody remembered who he was. So there’s something special going on with Kennedy.

Why do you think Kennedy remains so popular?

A significant part is television that gives Kennedy his enduring hold on the public. People can’t imagine now that he would be ninety-three years of age if he had lived. He’s frozen in our minds at the age of forty-six when he was killed. And of course, the television footage of him and the photographs bring back to us the excitement [of that time]. So young. Intelligent. Witty. Charming. So charismatic.

But there are two other things that account for his great hold on the public. One is the fact that his rhetoric was so inspirational. He talked of a New Frontier. That famous inaugural quote: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," or his great speech at American University, on June 10, 1963, in which he said: "Mankind must do away with war, or war will do away with mankind." The civil rights speech the next day on June 11,1963, was also really a powerful address.

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People turned to him as a beacon of hope. As a president they can still think of his being not just youthful, but holding out the promise of the country. And then of course he vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And that, of course, succeeded.

The second thing I would point to is how he compares to his successors: Lyndon Johnson, who had a credibility gap, and Richard Nixon, who was forced by the Watergate scandals to resign from the presidency. Neither of the two Bushes has anything resembling Kennedy’s hold on the public. Bush leaves office with a 29, 30 percent approval rating. Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid. Gerald Ford is disgraced by giving Richard Nixon a pardon in advance for the Watergate crimes. And Bill Clinton had the Monica Lewinsky affair. None of them can match up to Kennedy. When people want [to think about] hope in this country, they turn to Kennedy, and they turn to Ronald Reagan.

The final thing I’d point to about Kennedy: The Kennedy clan had an extraordinary hold on the public. Will it fade out now that there’s no Kennedy on the Washington scene or in a position of power in government? I don’t know. But it certainly has held up all these fifty years, and as a Kennedy biographer, I am getting inundated. I had a piece in the Smithsonian magazine. I’ve published something in a British magazine called Private Banking. There are German and British documentaries. American documentaries are being made.

He fought off the call for more troops to fight the war in Vietnam. But by the time Lyndon Johnson left office in 1969, he had put 545,000 troops into Vietnam.

How much did his aide Theodore Sorenson contribute to Kennedy’s speeches?

Sorenson was able to write in Kennedy’s voice. But Kennedy would edit them. And Kennedy was also something of a wordsmith and someone who was thoughtful about the style and the use of rhetoric and high-minded appeals to the public. Remember, the kinds of quotes that he would bring to bear from literature, from philosophy. Kennedy used high-minded rhetoric, invoking literature and philosophy, but it didn’t work against him. Our presidents are both our kings and our prime ministers, and Kennedy remains in a way America’s king.

It was ironic that Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, who started the Peace Corps, passed away yesterday. Shriver was close to Kennedy, wasn’t he?

He was. Nobody was closer to Kennedy though than his brother, Robert Kennedy. That adds to the sort of mystique of this star-crossed family. Kennedy was forty-six when he was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was only forty-three when he was assassinated in 1968. The family’s history: Joe Kennedy, the father, had an Horatio Alger story. Joe Jr., the oldest brother, was killed in World War Two. And Kennedy’s sister Kathleen was killed in a plane crash in 1948. It’s as if tragedy and the triumph and the kinds of myths that Americans have as part of their history are deeply embedded in the Kennedy history, and it adds to the sort of mystique that gives them their hold on the public.

Would Kennedy have pulled out of the Vietnam War or stepped up the American involvement as Johnson did after he was elected in 1964?

It’s impossible to know. Kennedy himself did not know exactly what he was going to do. However, the evidence I found in my research was that he was very skeptical about escalating that war by putting in lots of ground forces. Now, of course, he did increase the number from roughly six hundred to over sixteen thousand trainers during his thousand days in office. But he was very concerned not to get too deeply involved. We know that he sent a memo to Robert McNamara, the secretary of Defense, instructing him to pull a thousand of those military advisors out of Vietnam by the end of 1963. So he was looking to reduce our involvement in that country. And he fought off the call for more troops to fight the war in Vietnam. But by the time Lyndon Johnson left office in 1969, he had put 545,000 troops into Vietnam.

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