Accomplishments few but Kennedy still fascinates

Robert J. Samuelson


WASHINGTON – It’s not about him. It’s about us. As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaches, we’ve been deluged with essays, books, websites, videos and a new movie marking the event. The fascination with the Kennedys endures, though it’s probably on its last lap. After all, about three-quarters of Americans either weren’t born when Kennedy was shot or were too young (under 5) to grasp what happened. It’s a distant and disconnected event to them. There is a coyness to some retrospectives. In a long essay in the New York Times Book Review, Executive Editor Jill Abramson wonders, “Was Kennedy a great president?” – a question she never answers – and opines that he “remains all but impossible to pin down,” whatever that means. The question is actually easy to answer. He was not a great president. He was somewhere between middling and mediocre.

At his death, he had no major legislative accomplishments. His two major proposals – a tax cut to spur the economy and civil rights legislation – languished in Congress. He expanded the Vietnam War, and though some supporters argue he would have reversed that in a second term, presidents are judged on what they did, not what they might have done. His economic policies, symbolized by the proposed tax cut and called the “new economics” (an American Keynesianism), had damaging long-term consequences. They unleashed inflation in the late 1960s and 1970s; and they effectively abolished the commitment to balanced budgets – a loss that still haunts us. Beyond Vietnam, his foreign-policy track record was lackluster. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster. At a 1961 summit in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy was – by his own admission – cowed. Later, the Berlin Wall went up. He did defuse the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but the crisis may have resulted partly from Khrushchev’s sense that Kennedy could be intimidated. It is cruel but true that the most consequential moment of Kennedy’s presidency was his assassination: It so filled the country with grief and guilt that, pushed by a masterful legislator, Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the tax cut and civil rights legislation. Moreover, the shift in public opinion enabled Johnson, after his 1964 landslide election, to advance his Great Society agenda: Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and more. None of this sustains the Kennedy fascination. It’s too wonky and nuanced. The fixation has other sources. For starters, it’s history as soap opera. Vigorous president gunned down in his prime. Beautiful wife. Young children. But this appeal is superficial. Its real power is that for many Americans – baby boomers, members of the World War II generation – Kennedy’s life and death represent a larger personal and historic metaphor.

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I was a college freshman when Kennedy was shot. The Camelot illusion was that he and we were in control of events. His approval rating averaged 70 percent, the highest of modern presidents. Partly, this reflected a less critical public climate. Eisenhower, with eight years in office and more opportunities to disappoint and anger, had ratings nearly as high (65 percent). But it was also Kennedy’s personality. He inspired confidence and oozed charm. He certainly mesmerized me. As it happened, my wife and I visited the Kennedy Library last summer. Going through the exhibits, I sensed being transported back to the early 1960s and, despite knowing what’s occurred in the five decades since, feeling invigorated and hopeful. The Kennedys were what we all wanted to be. No, we wouldn’t end up in the White House. But just as they had achieved their ambition, we could achieve ours. And we would make America and the world a better place.  

Kennedy’s assassination shattered the illusion of control. Who could imagine an American president being shot? But many unimagined events followed: race riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and many cities; a powerful antiwar movement; the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; a president’s resignation (Watergate). Camelot was that brief interlude when we thought we could impose our will. That is its magnetism. It was less an innocent time than a simplistic one. We thought we could engineer the future and discovered that the future wouldn’t cooperate. Our continuing seduction by the Kennedy narrative presumes that had he lived, the future would have been better. He would have grasped the folly of Vietnam, embraced the new youth culture and advanced civil rights. This subtext sustains the Kennedy fascination. It requires us to suspend disbelief, for there was a great contradiction at the core of his brief presidency. Though Kennedy projected mastery, he followed events more than he led them. It takes a huge leap of faith to think a second term would have been much different.

Robert Samuelson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.