A conservative friend of mine asked me why the public continues to rank John F. Kennedy first among Barack Obama’s nine predecessors in public opinion surveys, as they did again just this week — a Gallup poll showed Kennedy with an 85 percent approval rating, eleven points higher than that of his closest competitor, Ronald Reagan.
At first blush, my friend’s bafflement seems justified. In office barely a thousand days, Kennedy was hardly the kind of president Barack Obama would term “transformative” — not like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan, who each set the nation on a new course consistent with their vision.
Kennedy had few legislative achievements. Those enacted while he was in office — such as the Peace Corps, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and mental-health initiatives — however worthy, pale in comparison to the Marshall Plan, Social Security, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway System, NASA, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, welfare reform, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. Kennedy deserves credit for being the first president to declare the equal enforcement of the law to all citizens as a “moral issue” — as “old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution” — and, after nearly three years of delay, sending up to Congress what became the 1964 civil-rights bill, but it was Lyndon Johnson who steered it to passage.
Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — and the many who have studied it — rightly maintain that Kennedy’s deft handling of the situation averted nuclear war. But they often overlook another truism: that but for Kennedy’s bungling of the Bay of Pigs affair a year earlier, Khrushchev might never have had the opportunity to install missiles on an island 90 miles away from American shores. Kennedy’s “successful” resolution of the crisis assured the enslavement of the Cuban people for a half-century and provided Marxists of all varieties with a beachhead from which to export revolution elsewhere in the western hemisphere (and the Soviets with surrogate troops to fight proxy wars in Angola).
As the U.S.’s half-hearted measures to assure the survival of South Vietnam as an independent, non-Communist state began to fail, Kennedy advisers put out word that JFK planned to begin removing combat forces from South Vietnam after his reelection. (There were 16,000 on the ground there the day Kennedy took his fateful journey to Dallas.) They neglected, of course, to say why a president who confessed this to White House aides made no mention of it to his vice president, whom he sent on a fact finding mission to South Vietnam.
After he succeeded Kennedy in office, Johnson shrewdly observed that the greatest mistake the U.S. made in the entire war was the coup Kennedy sanctioned that led to the assassination of Ngo Din Diem and his brother. (Readers can find prescient coverage of tensions between the Kennedy and Diem regimes in Clare Booth Luce’s account in National Review the very month the Diems and Kennedy were assassinated.)
Why then, with such a record as this, does Kennedy remain the president of the past half-century to rank “first in the hearts of his countrymen”? I can think of three possible explanations.
Elected at the tail end of a recession, Kennedy sought to grow the economy — and at a rate that would make sufficient room for the Baby Boomers who would be entering the work force toward the end of what he expected would be an eight-year presidency. The Keynesians, dominant among economic schools at the time, divided down the middle as to how to do it.
New Deal veteran John Kenneth Galbraith advocated increased government spending and investments in public works. (Think of it as an Obama-styled stimulus, but with real spending on infrastructure.) “Young Turk” James Tobin, who headed Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers, recommended cutting marginal tax rates.
Rather than seek to split the difference between the two, Kennedy threw his weight behind Tobin. What resulted was a cut in the top marginal tax rate from 91 percent to 70 percent. Steered to passage by Johnson, the “Kennedy tax cuts” made possible the prosperity we associate with the 1960’s. Money put in the hands of investors found its way into new and expanding industries such as aerospace and computers. These produced high-paying jobs — for the highly educated and for others — in entities that kept the big job generators amply supplied.
In his battle for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy had defeated the most ardent of the New Dealers. As president, he was willing to endure criticism from his base in order to keep his promise to “get America moving again.” Self-proclaimed “conservatives” of the era were far from pleased with Kennedy’s tax-cut proposals. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and recently elected Rep. Bob Dole (R., Kansas) all termed them reckless and irresponsible and said that they would add to the deficit. Short-term spikes in the deficits were prices Kennedy and Tobin were willing to pay in order to attain long-term growth. (Midway through Johnson’s presidency, the economy was growing by 5 percent annually.)
A second reason Americans remain fond of Kennedy is that he reigned at a time when Americans believed that anything they set out to do was attainable. Elected only fifteen years after the end of World War II, the “can-do” approach Kennedy carried into office with him captured the spirit of the era. When Kennedy was president, the vast majority of people still looked upon government more as a solution to their problems than as a cause of them. His days in office preceded the assassinations, civil disturbances, and campus unrest of the 1960s, Vietnam and Watergate, and the “culture wars” that endure without end.
Americans, including those who were not yet born when he was in the White House, look back on those times as an era before America lost its innocence. It was also a time when the word “elitist” was not considered a pejorative, good taste and elegance were encouraged and much in vogue, people looked up to their leaders, and children were taught to look upon the president as a role model. Kennedy may have fallen short of the image his handlers presented of him, but that in no way diminishes the nation’s nostalgia for what they perceive to have been the reality. In this regard, old Joe Kennedy had it right when he told his sons that it “is not what you are that matters, but what people think you are.”
The final explanation for Kennedy’s enduring popularity may be his unfulfilled promise. He was the last president his country did not see grow old. Like the nation he led, Kennedy remains young in spirit. What he and his administration might have been, more than what they actually achieved, remains an enduring part of his legend. If, as many have observed, ours is a nation of dreamers, Kennedy’s unfinished presidency provides us all with an opportunity to imagine whatever ending we would have preferred to the tragic one so many of us witnessed.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of The Leaders We Deserve (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He is currently at work on a book about William F. Buckley, Jr.