Reflections on John F. Kennedy

I was born in July 1964—conceived in Kennedy’s America, but born in the post-Kennedy era.

My parents were members of the “silent generation,” coming of age in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Their experience of the baby boomers was as their teachers in college, not their contemporaries.

Kennedy was in a very real way “their” president—the baby boomers were children of the Johnson and then Nixon eras, and my parents were young enough to identify with the strife of that time, but not as participants.

As I was growing up the politics of the 60’s resonated, but more through the lenses of Kennedy and Martin Luther King than the more cynical and violent Black Panthers and Weather Underground (of Bill Ayers fame).

The first biographies I read—as children’s books—were of Kennedy and Martin Luther King. “Ask not…” and “I have a dream…” were and remain inspirations for me, despite a cynicism that has infected me over the years. Kennedy represented hope, and King the dignity of fighting for what is right and true.

Over the years I have come to believe that John Kennedy was neither a good man nor a good President, but at some level I am still drawn to the Kennedy myth, and appreciate the enduring value of that myth.

Liberals have reveled in the mythical Kennedy, and were able to bank a lot of political capital off of it (much as conservatives have done with Reagan, who while a great President, now represents all things to all people). The greatest accomplishment ascribed to Kennedy—the triumph of the civil rights movement, was due to the hard work of Martin Luther King and LBJ, not JFK—and would have floundered without a backbone of minority Republicans’ support in Congress. (80% of Republicans supported the bill, while only about 60% of Democrats did).

Kennedy’s lasting effect on policy and history were generally bad. Under him the Berlin Wall was built, the Bay of Pigs turned into a disaster, Vietnam became the name of a war, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred (and was due to his appearing very weak to the Soviet Union), and the nuclear arms race escalated.

When he became President, the Soviet Union had a relatively modest nuclear program, much smaller than the United States. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, their program went into overdrive—matching and then exceeding the number of weapons the United States possessed. (Under Eisenhower the Soviets were content to have about 1/15th the number of nukes as the US, because they believed the threat of nuclear war to be quite remote; after Kennedy, they increased production so much that at one point they had twice as may nukes as the US). Khrushchev’s response to his humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis was to vow that never again would the Soviet Union be intimidated by a stronger America.

Despite Kennedy’s dubious personal life (can you say sexual harassment, anyone?) and his terrible policies, it is hard not to have a soft spot for the Kennedy era.

Kennedy survives today as a symbol of an era of–dare I say it–hope and change. The space program may have begun, in Kennedy’s mind, as a way of grinding the Soviets’ nose in the dust, but it became quite a bit more—and Kennedy invited us to see it that way.

Kennedy’s cold war antics may have been bungled policies of containment, but he invited us to see the battle against communism as a twilight struggle for freedom in a world that imperiled it. “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Kennedy may have been a reluctant warrior for civil rights (and was, after all, continuing a struggle started by the Supreme Court and Eisenhower), but he laid the groundwork for important forward movement toward fulfilling Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s vision of a color blind American government. He met with Civil Rights leaders, and lent his prestige to theirs.

The popular vision of JFK may be vastly different than the reality (and occasionally infuriatingly so, especially for Republicans), but it does serve to remind us of the value of an almost naïve optimism that the era represented. The world could be made right, and we can all play a role in it.

Of all the Kennedy achievements, perhaps the most symbolic one is the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is born of the naiveté that is so charming and inspiring from that era. The promise of the Corps is so much greater than its achievements—as is usually the case with idealistic programs—but it is hard to argue that we would be better off without the idealism.

Of course more good has been done in Africa by George W. Bush’s PEPFAR (his crash program to eliminate AIDS in Africa, which has literally saved millions of lives) than the Peace Corps has done in all its history, but the Peace Corps captures our imagination in a way that few other things do. I’ll bet the majority of people reading this haven’t heard of PEPFAR, because it has succeeded through unsexy means.

The Kennedy of today is not the Kennedy of history, and at some level I am reconciled to that fact. When I chafe a bit at the lionization of Kennedy by liberals (and the forgiveness extended to his relatives as they run roughshod over basic moral norms) I remind myself that the Kennedy image is a useful illusion.

In light of that, I believe that Americans don’t so much mourn Kennedy today as much as the innocence and optimism of that era. And that innocence, with all its flaws, is indeed worth mourning.