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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

(continued from page 6)

Johnson was better than Kennedy in cajoling and bullying Congress. And the 1964 election, by giving LBJ an extra 37 Democrats in the House, nearly all liberals from the north, made him the only Democratic president since FDR's first term to have a working Democratic majority in both houses. It was this political arithmetic more than Johnson's parliamentary wizardry that made possible the impressive array of social programs enacted in 1964 and 1965.

Kennedy made his share of mistakes. In addition to the excesses of private life and the fatuity of the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose, there was his 1961 decision, before the "missile gap" was disproved, to call for a build-up of the American nuclear missile force. This ended any hope of freezing the rival forces at lower levels, and set off the nuclear arms race. There was the reappointment of J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. There was the crazy 1961 call for fallout shelters to protect against nuclear attack. There was the 1962 enthusiasm for counterinsurgency in the Third World. There was the deepening of the inherited U.S. commitment to Vietnam. And there was throughout an excessive New Frontier faith in activism, a conviction that, if there was a problem, there must be a solution, and let's do it tomorrow. But Kennedy never lost the capacity to learn from his mistakes. Each year he became a better president.

Perhaps most important of all was the impact Kennedy had on a new generation of Americans. He liked to quote the Scottish author John Buchan: "Politics is still the greatest and most honorable adventure." At Kennedy's behest, bright, idealistic and capable young men and women, asking not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country, flocked to Washington. They brought new ideas, hopes, vision, generosity and vitality to the national life. There had been nothing like it since the early days of FDR's New Deal.

JFK touched and remolded lives and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history. Inspired by his words, they dedicated themselves thereafter to public service, whether in government, in civil rights and human rights movements, in nonprofit sectors, in community organization, in their own hearts and souls. His irreverence toward conventional ideas and institutions provoked a discharge of critical energy throughout American society. He gave the country back to its own best self and taught the world that the process of rediscovering America was not over.

One is bound to speculate how America and the world would have been different if Kennedy had lived. For individuals do indeed make a difference to history. In December 1931, a British politician crossing Fifth Avenue in New York City was struck by an automobile and nearly killed. In February 1933, an American politician sitting in an open car in Miami was fired upon by an assassin; the mayor of Chicago, sitting beside him, was killed. Would the history of the twentieth century have been the same if the New York automobile had killed Winston Churchill and the Miami assassin had killed Franklin Roosevelt?

Had John F. Kennedy lived, his New Frontier program would have been enacted, he would have pressed the attack on poverty and racism in America, would have pursued détente in Europe, would most probably have withdrawn from Vietnam,and would have urged on the global crusade against nuclear proliferation. The republic would have been spared much of the trauma, disorder and violence that disfigured the raging 1960s.

And there remain memories of the private man. He was not, as some claim, a bearer of grudges--the "don't get mad, get even" idea. He made Lyndon Johnson his vice president after Johnson had said unforgivable things about his father. He took most of the Stevenson-for-President crowd--George Ball, Willard Wirtz, Thomas K. Finletter, William Blair, Newton Minow, J. Edward Day, William Attwood, Clayton Fritchey--into his administration though the Stevenson campaign had seemed for a moment to imperil his nomination.

Nor was he, as claimed, a spoiled rich man who used and discarded people and treated his associates as if they were indentured servants. He was one of the most unfailingly courteous and considerate men I have ever known. I did my share of creating trouble for his administration; and a couple of times, after one scrape or another made headlines, I told him that maybe the time had come for me to resign. He would laugh and dismiss the idea: "Better that you're the target than me."

He was easy, accessible, witty, candid, enjoying the clash of ideas and the ripples of gossip, never more relaxed than when sitting in his rocking chair and puffing away on a fine Havana cigar. He was, in his self-description, an "idealist without illusions." He was the best of my generation. It is good for the country that he remains so vivid a presence in our minds and hearts.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a writer, historian and former special assistant to President Kennedy.


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