Hunter Johnson, Commentary Editor
It was 50 years ago this Friday that John F. Kennedy was shot on a street not even 20 minutes from the University of Dallas. It was a tragedy that shook the country to its core, snatching from it a young, idealistic president in whom millions had placed their hopes for America’s future.
In the decades since his assassination, Kennedy has remained one of the most popular political figures in American history, so much so that many refer to him as one of our greatest presidents.
Given that there have been 44 presidents of the great nation of the United States, that opinion of JFK is no small compliment. I find it interesting that millions defend this opinion of the 31st president so strongly in light of one important fact: Kennedy served as the commander in chief for less than one full term.
Now, that short tenure was the result of events well beyond his control. However, when deciding how successful a president is and how he compares to his fellow executives, we have to look at what occurred during his time in office – his successes as well as his failures.
Because his time in office was prematurely cut short by tragedy, Kennedy’s presidency has often been spared harsh analysis and been the subject of more glowing reflections and ruminations of what may have been. History and Kennedy, however, deserve a more thorough examination of his presidency.
So, what was JFK’s time in the White House really like? It did, indeed, have many positive aspects. Despite a close victory in the 1960 election over Richard Nixon, Kennedy arrived in Washington, in many people’s opinions, as a breath of fresh air: a young face and cool demeanor with the chance to change politics in D.C.
There’s no doubt that his rhetorical skills helped to build that perception, and while in office he used those skills to inspire the nation in several areas. A key area was America’s expansion into space – it was Kennedy who called for the U.S. to put a man on the moon, and within the decade an American flag was planted on the lunar surface.
Kennedy also pushed for several legislative initiatives meant to improve Americans’ quality of life. Civil rights, voting rights and the creation of health programs to aid the poor and elderly were all issues for which JFK pushed Congress to enact legislation.
His shining moment in office, however, was his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. When Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba, many in Kennedy’s administration – including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson – thought bombing the missiles in order to destroy them was the proper response. Kennedy, however, thought a stern but cautious response would prevent the situation from escalating into war. The resulting U.S. naval blockade of Cuba was enough to pressure the Soviets to back down, and nothing less than nuclear war was averted.
Despite those successes, Kennedy’s presidency was accompanied with at least an equal amount of failures and shortcomings. Most of his congressional objectives failed to be passed into law. Despite the fact that the president was previously a congressman and senator on the Hill, the Kennedy White House did not have a strong relationship with Congress. Most of Kennedy’s initiatives only became law after his death, under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, a president who, ironically, has never approached Kennedy’s level of popularity.
Perhaps more ironic is the fact that Kennedy’s shining moment, the Cuban Missile Crisis, may have been prevented entirely had he not been responsible for the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident. After being sworn in, Kennedy was informed of a plan to help thousands of Cuban exiles invade their homeland in an attempt to overthrow the new communist regime of Fidel Castro. Kennedy initially backed the plan and approved of its launch. However, at the last minute, he decided to cancel U.S. air support for the invasion, leaving the rebels to storm the well-defended beaches of Cuba on their own. The resulting massacre not only strengthened the Castro government but was also a tremendous embarrassment to Kennedy, encouraging the Soviets to openly mock the ill-prepared American president.
Even Kennedy’s personality created problems for his administration. He was a passionate and powerful public speaker, but many who knew him personally said he often lacked the ability to put words into action. There was also the fact that, in private, the president was notorious for his extramarital affairs, the most famous of which allegedly involved Marilyn Monroe. However, close friends of Kennedy did their best to ensure such entanglements remained secret from the media.
There are numerous other positive and negative aspects of JFK’s presidency that one can examine. What’s important is that people actially examine them. For decades people have preferred to remember only the young idealist rather than try to see how successfully Kennedy lived up to those ideals. As we write American history for our descendants, we must give them the full picture so that they may accurately conclude whether or not Kennedy was one of our greatest presidents.
And what do I think of John F. Kennedy? He was not our worst president, not by a long shot. He was not, however, one of our greatest.