One of the first events from my childhood that I still remember in some detail is the Kennedy assassination. Thinking about it, I posted this on Facebook:
My 2nd grade teacher was Miss Smith, and she was young and beautiful and loved every one of us, and loved great books and little boys who would rather read than play. And then one day, the principal came to the door of her classroom, and Miss Smith went to talk to her, and when she came back, she was crying. And that was shocking, because Miss Smith always, always smiled. And she said someone had shot the President, and we were to go home early.
And on my way home, my Dad saw me walking and picked me up, and he looked like he’d been crying too. And my Dad never cried.
And when the afternoon newspaper arrived, with the huge headlines, I read the story, all of it, the first time I’d read a newspaper story, and I only had to ask my Mom twice what the big words meant. And one of those big words was ‘assassinated.’ And everything in the world felt different.
Jackie Kennedy did not want the President to go to Texas. She certainly didn’t want to go with him. Nor did Kennedy think the Texas trip would accomplish much. Texas Democratic infighting was, in the Presidents’ mind, more the province of Lyndon Johnson. But he was committed to getting a major civil rights bill passed, and he wanted to see for himself how people might react to it. Kennedy was an excellent public speaker, but more than that, he was extraordinarily sensitive to audiences–he could read a crowd better than most public individuals. I think he wanted to see how Southerners responded to a civil rights initiative.
And Jackie wanted to come with him. Their marriage, always rocky, was probably happier in November 1963 than ever before. The tragic death of their infant son, Patrick, seems to have caused Kennedy to reassess his relationship with his wife. He’d distanced himself from several of his mistresses, including White House intern Mimi Alford, and Pamela Turnure, Jackie’s appointments secretary. But he’d dropped Turnure, and was no longer seeing Alford. He and Jackie were seen holding hands in public. She went to Dallas because he asked her to.
So, how effective was his Presidency? Dylan Matthews, on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, published this takedown today, making six arguments for why Kennedy shouldn’t be considered a great president. Let me respond:
1) The Cuban Missile Crisis was his fault.
This argument displays historical ignorance of the first order. It doesn’t matter that the Soviets had nuclear submarines, and could get missiles closer to the US than Cuba was. That’s irrelevant, in the context of the Cold War. For Khrushchev to place Soviet missiles in Cuba was a deliberately provocative act. Matthews suggests that the Soviets put missiles there to forestall an American invasion. Matthews cites John Lewis Gaddis, suggesting that Kennedy misunderstood the placement of the Cuban missiles as an attempt to give the Soviets an edge in a nuclear exchange; really, Khrushchev was just helping Castro out. Sorry, but if Kennedy thought Cuban missiles off the coast of Florida was outrageous, he was joined by basically everyone else, here and abroad. And after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy wasn’t about to invade Cuba again. In fact, Matthews ignores the very real peace negotiations that Kennedy had opened up with Castro throughout September and October of 1963.
2) The Bay of Pigs invasion was Kennedy’s fault.
Kennedy took full blame for it, too. But it was an ill-planned left-over from the Eisenhower administration. Kennedy was always skeptical about its chance for success, as was most of his administration. But the military establishment was enthusiastic, and he didn’t think he could begin his Presidency by ignoring their advice.
3) He escalated in Vietnam.
Essentially every major historian who has studied the Kennedy administration agrees; Kennedy knew that Vietnam was a loser, and that the domino theory justifying our involvement there was nonsense. Matthews says that Kennedy was ‘influenced’ by Maxwell Taylor, who was urging escalation. But what this ignores is what seems to me an essential point: Kennedy had served in the military. He was a genuine war hero. And he was perfectly aware that the orders that had sent his PT boat into battle against overwhelming odds were idiotic. And the Bay of Pigs confirmed his already low opinion of his own military commanders. He did not glamorize generals, or take their advice all that seriously, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who was all too aware of his own lack of military service, and seriously unwilling to ignore the advice his commanders gave him. Kennedy had been to Vietnam with Bobby before his election. Every indication suggests that Kennedy would have figured out how to pull out of Vietnam after being re-elected in ’64. He just couldn’t say so, and risk being painted as ‘soft on communism’ before the election.
4) He backed an ill-advised coup in Iran.
Yep. Guilty as charged. The Cold War warped leaders in strange ways; even someone as self-aware and ironic as Jack Kennedy. It didn’t happen on his watch, but he did support the overthrow of Mohammed Mossedegh. And he shouldn’t have.
5) He went way too slowly on civil rights.
Well, he did more for civil rights than any previous president. He faced intractable opposition among Senate Dixiecrats, but he still pushed for the Civil Rights bill that Lyndon Johnson eventually got through. And LBJ’s main selling point was ‘Jack wanted it.’ Which no one really argued with. Kennedy was aware that he’d moved too slowly on civil rights. He also knew he’d be able to do more after winning re-election in ’64.
6) He passed no domestic legislation of any consequence.
Well, let’s see. There’s the Equal Pay Act of ’63, the first major legislation intended to end pay inequity by gender. The Space program was obviously a huge goal and achievement. He passed a major tax cut, a Keynesian stimulus bill that led to significant economic growth. (Remember, the top tax bracket previously was 91%). He increased Social Security benefits, and increased welfare spending.
And what Matthews ignores is probably the greatest speech of Kennedy’s presidency: his American University speech. It was a clarion call for peace, for a negotiated end to nuclear weapons. And Kennedy’s actions matched his words, negotiating a test ban treaty with Khrushchev, and then getting the Senate to ratify it. Granted, that first treaty was only the first step in a long process of arms reduction that continues today, but it was the first step, and Kennedy fully intended to follow it up.
All this suggests to me that Kennedy’s second term would have been remarkable, as positive as Lyndon Johnson’s, but unmarred by Vietnam. Two things may have stopped him. First, Kennedy’s health was never good, and he lied about it. Bright’s disease could well have killed him before he could complete a second term.
But anyone today assessing Kennedy’s presidency has to take into account his womanizing. The establishment press agreed to a conspiracy of silence regarding his affairs, but in ’63, the first cracks in that wall had started to appear. The Bobby Baker scandal had begun to rock the Washington political world even as Kennedy flew to Dallas. Baker was a political operative, a Democratic shaker and mover, a lobbyist who started the Quorum Club just off the Senate office building, a convivial place where lobbyists, businessmen and Congresspeople could meet. And Baker was the man who introduced Kennedy to Ellen Rometsch, a German woman who was, quite probably, an East German spy. He was also the middle-man in the relationship between Kennedy and Judith Exner, who was also the mistress of mob boss Sam Giancana. Baker was, in short, someone who knew everything. And he was under investigation in 1963, by the FBI and, worse, the press.
So who knows. It’s quite possible that Kennedy, if he had won a second term, could have enjoyed a transformative Presidency. It’s also possible that his almost incredible personal recklessness and moral laxity could have destroyed his Presidency. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that Jack Kennedy’s Presidency was unfinished, a work in progress, and that the last 90 days of it reveal a greater potential for true greatness than the blunders of his first 90 days would seem to suggest. And that the life and work of this extraordinary man was ended by a smirking, cowardly, miserable, abusive nullity of a man, Lee Harvey Oswald. That tragedy has scarred our nation for fifty years. Let’s hope it never happens again.