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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

Thirty-five years after his death, John Fitzgerald Kennedy remains a vivid presence in the minds of his countrymen. In a way, it is odd that this should be so. Nearly half the American people arrived on this earth after his death; at least three-fifths are too young to remember him in the White House. His presidency was one of the shortest in American history.

Yet Kennedy lives vigorously in memory. Television is a help. JFK's face and wit and eloquence are familiar even to schoolchildren. The dynastic effect is a help, too. The impact on American politics of his brother Robert in the 1960s and of his brother Edward in more recent times prolongs the Kennedy mystique. And, of course--and alas--the assassination also helps. Even JFK's detractors cannot deny the awful drama of a slain hero, a gallant career cut off in midstream, a life unfulfilled.

Memory soon becomes entwined with myth. Kennedy devotees cherish the idea of Camelot and its brief shining moments. Myth-making aside, many Americans remember Kennedy as the strong and purposeful president who saved the peace in the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, assumed leadership in the battle for racial justice, initiated the exploration of space, tapped the republic's latent idealism and inspired a generation with a passion for public service.

Still, as Emerson said, "Every hero becomes a bore at last." Myth breeds countermyth. Revisionist critics see Kennedy as charming but superficial, a triumph of style over substance, a politician more concerned with image than results, who talked big but accomplished little. In the darker side of the countermyth, Kennedy becomes a faithless husband and incorrigible philanderer, a reckless risk-taker in both private and public life, a bellicose president who ordered the assassination of foreign leaders, plunged the nation into the Vietnam morass, almost provoked a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and, between needless international crises, turned the White House into a bordello.

Myth versus countermyth? Public opinion polls show continuing popular admiration for Kennedy. In June 1997, John Zogby, the pollster who came the closest to forecasting the outcome of the 1996 election, asked a broad sample of Americans to rate twentieth-century presidents. JFK came in second, behind Franklin D. Roosevelt, but ahead of Truman, Reagan and Eisenhower.

Among historians, however, Kennedy's reputation has fluctuated madly since his death. When American Heritage magazine invited scholars in 1988 to name the single most overrated figure in American history, JFK got more votes than anyone else (Ronald Reagan came in second). One respondent summed up the revisionist case against Kennedy: "His public relations approach to the presidency was an almost total disaster for the nation....The revelations of his private life have added more tarnish to the once golden image."

More recently, there seems to have been a mild Kennedy revival. In 1996, continuing a practice begun by my father in 1948, I asked a select group of historians and political scientists to rate the American presidents. Kennedy came in 12th out of 41, following Eisenhower and John Adams and followed by Cleveland and Lyndon Johnson. He received nine votes in the "near great" category, 21 as "high average" and only one as "below average."

A much larger 1997 poll, conducted by William J. Ridings Jr. and Stuart B. McIver, surveyed 719 scholars. In that poll Kennedy came in 15th, following Monroe and John Adams, and followed by Cleveland and McKinley (Eisenhower was ninth, Lyndon Johnson, 12th). Ridings and McIver asked their group to make ratings in designated categories. Kennedy placed seventh in appointments, eighth in leadership qualities, 10th in political skill, 16th in accomplishments and crisis management, and 34th in character and integrity (recent presidents did not do well in this category--LBJ was 37th, Reagan 39th; perhaps earlier presidents benefit as character flaws fade in memory).

So the Kennedy argument goes on. The mystery remains. What kind of a president was Kennedy? Was he an idealist or a cynic? Was he an achiever or only a talker? Did he really like people or did he exploit and discard them? Was he reckless or was he circumspect? Was Camelot a reality or an illusion?

In considering such questions, I make no great claim to impartiality. I served in JFK's White House, and it was the most exhilarating experience of my life. Yet close observation of a president need not be a disqualification in writing about him. I did, after all, know Kennedy, and I knew him for many years. When he was president, I saw him in the daytime as a special assistant and in evenings as a friend. I saw him in good times and in bad. I may not be totally useless as a witness.

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