Ranking President Kennedy

Was JFK a great President?  As the nation marked the 50th anniversary of Jack Kennedy’s tragic assassination, new polling shows that many Americans consider him to be among our very best, ranking higher than any President in the last half century according to the latest Gallup survey.  Two years ago, he rated fourth all time, ahead of such Presidents as Washington and Jefferson.  But is this accurate?

As a historian, it makes little sense to rank a President who served just over one thousand days in office, rather than a full term or even two.  It’s very difficult to judge his more limited accomplishments and what effect they had on the nation and even the world.

JFK’s policies were a mixed bag – some conservative, some liberal; some successful, some not.  In terms of domestic policy, Kennedy inherited a seemingly calm nation, though major problems lay just under the surface ready to explode if not handled carefully.

One big one was civil rights.  Much to the chagrin of black leaders, the new President moved very slowly on that volatile issue. And understandably so. Kennedy most likely feared that to move swiftly would cause an upheaval, perhaps even a violent one, which is exactly what happened under Lyndon Johnson, so he favored a more cautious approach.

Without a doubt, though, his biggest fear was upsetting and alienating the Democratic South, which he needed to win in 1960 and would need even more in 1964.  So there’s no question he put politics ahead of the plight of black Americans, who never did loom large on his radar screen.

The economy was also on the skids, having suffered several recurring recessions under Eisenhower.  To stimulate it, Kennedy pushed hard, not for a spending bill, but for an across-the-board tax cut in 1962, cloaked in language similar to that used later by Ronald Reagan.  He announced that he intended to cut taxes “both for your family budget and the national budget” that would create “more jobs and income and eventually more revenue. … Every dollar released from taxation that is spent or invested will help create a new job and a new salary.  And these new jobs and new salaries can create other jobs and other salaries and more customers and more growth for an expanding American economy.”  That kind of talk would get him excommunicated from the Democratic Party today.

On the foreign affairs front, President Kennedy is given great praise, especially from leftwing Democrats, on his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, a serious conflict with the Soviet Union that nearly ended in a nuclear exchange that would have killed millions.  Did cool heads prevail?  Of course.  Was one of them Jack Kennedy’s?  Without question.

But that’s not the whole story, for Kennedy’s bungling in the previous two years brought about the crisis.  His approval of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in April 1961, and his subsequent refusal to provide American air cover for the insurgents, showed Moscow that he lacked backbone.  His performance at a joint summit with Khrushchev in Vienna a few months later, when the aged Soviet Premier lectured and bullied the young President, demonstrated further his weaknesses.

Kennedy’s flaws, and the United States’ obvious interest in overthrowing the Castro regime, gave Khrushchev all he believed he needed to put missiles in Cuba.  JFK apparently didn’t understand these things until he looked up one morning to find nuclear warheads 90 miles from Florida.  A stronger, more forceful President, like Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, or Reagan, and the Soviets would not have dared escalate to that extent.

In Vietnam, Kennedy can be given kudos for beginning a withdrawal, ordering 1,000 troops out of the 16,000 in country home by the end of 1963.  Some scholars contend that there is no evidence JFK would have cut and run from Vietnam completely.  His order is strong evidence that he was prepared to begin a slow drawdown of US troops.

Not that we would have left Vietnam entirely, for he stated many times that he was prepared to assist the South Vietnamese. But as someone who has traveled to Vietnam five times, and studied the war in detail, I do not believe the massive escalation that took place under LBJ would have happened under Kennedy.  That war did as much internal destruction to this nation as any other, save the War Between the States, while the ghosts of Vietnam haunt us still.

Personally, I have always admired President Kennedy but would rank him somewhere in the middle.  He was a right-of-center President who believed in a strong national defense, robust anti-communism, tax cuts, economy in government, and law and order.  But he did stray to the left on occasion, seeking greater roles for the federal government in combating poverty and other social programs like housing and health care.  Who can know what a second term would have brought about.

He was certainly the best Democratic President of the 20th century, and undoubtedly the most conservative, though I know that threshold is awfully low, which is what makes him look as appealing as he does.  His assassination was tragic and, in the end, caused much more damage to this nation than his murder was designed to prevent.  May we never see a day like November 22, 1963 again.

Laurel Leader Call, Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

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