Friday, November 22, 2013

Let's End the JFK Hagiography

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It would be a good time for sober historical reflection, but unfortunately we don't see too much of that. Instead, for several weeks I've been subjected to non-stop hagiography and distortion based, it seems to me, on decades of fascination with a president who gave people hope and then died too quickly. That sense of loss--along with how it imprinted in so many people's memory--makes perfect sense to me, but it has tended to lead to an overly rosy vision of the past.

The bottom line is that JFK was not a president who accomplished much and was--let's face it--not a particularly nice guy to boot. He meant well on civil rights, but had no idea how to get a bill through Congress and he marginalized LBJ, who was the only one in the administration who actually knew how to do so. He was not gifted at foreign policy, and is more responsible than any other president for solidifying Fidel Castro's hold on power in Cuba because of how badly he screwed up the Bay of Pigs, which then led to the missile crisis (I give him the Alliance for Progress, which was a good idea that did not outlive him by much, and was accompanied by a lot of covert action, and the Peace Corps, also a good legacy). His support for coups helped launch a disaster in Vietnam, and he red-baited with the best of them. All of his "missile gap" claims were lies, and I can sympathize with Richard Nixon's frustration that he couldn't refute them publicly (and it's hard to sympathize with Nixon on much of anything).

When you boil it down, as president JFK's main accomplishments were soaring rhetoric and youth, which when combined inspired people. However, he even used those qualities selfishly, as he was famously cheated on his wife on a regular basis. For his inner circle he chose people like himself, elites whose advice on major issues was often an unfortunate combination of arrogant certainty and low quality.

Yet even now, with a half century of knowledge about JFK's life and record, there are countless stories of the wonders of Camelot and "what ifs" that conjure up a utopia had he lived. You can't point to very many achievements so instead you assert how much better life would've been under more years of JFK. He is revered for superficial nostalgic reasons. Interestingly, by November 1963 his approval rating was still pretty high but had been on the decline.

Political assassinations are tragic and traumatic, but we should not allow them to confuse image with substance. Let's remember the president as he was, and not how we thought he would end up being.


Anonymous,  11:10 AM  

"All of his "missile gap" claims were lies, and I can sympathize with Richard Nixon's frustration that he couldn't refute them publicly (and it's hard to sympathize with Nixon on much of anything)."

This in a paragraph about how ineffective he was at governing? Yes, he campaigned to the right (and left) of Nixon in 1960, but it was a campaign.

His diplomatic success with USSR in 1962 (Cuban missiles removed, nuclear war avoided) led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Your Jeremiad is divorced from the actual Cold War context. No consideration of the actual alternatives, Kruschev, Berlin, Joint Chiefs or what to do about Diem.

LBJ was masterful in building on Kennedy's legacy precisely because he exploited the nation's mood after the assassination. He also had a new Congress after a Democratic landslide in 1964.

I suggest you read Caro and Dallek et al. more seriously. Labeling scholars who disagree with you hagiographers is silly. Saying the president wasn't a nice man is still worse.

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