I’m no Kennedy hater mind you. I admire his and his wife’s sense of style, and I recognize what a symbol they were to two different generations and for various groups of people. I’m not taking that away from him.
But, I’m talking strictly policy.
Kennedy made great speeches, and had good ideas - yet was unable to get many, or most, of them passed in his lifetime. He didn’t have much pull in Congress in the way Johnson did.
Medicare - He tried, and couldn’t get it passed in his lifetime;
Civil Rights Act - A watered down version was what he realistically hoped to achieve, and a watered down/compromise version akin to previous bills is probably what would’ve passed;
The Tax Cut - This was considered heresy by his own party, and it really only got passed because of LBJ pushing JFK’s memory to get it passed. How can you vote against a beloved, now deceased martyr?
Yes, he was popular while President. He had high approval ratings even up to his death. But so did Eisenhower, and Eisenhower is generally forgotten because he didn’t have any major achievements under his belt. Eisenhower had the Highway System - but how many remember that. Kennedy had the Peace Corps. - but that’s pretty much his biggest accomplishment.
Kennedy had the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Eisenhower had the U2 Crisis.
My point is, while again, he was a charismatic figure, does anyone else feel that had he remained alive and in office until 1969, he would’ve been seen similar to Obama or Clinton are now - sort of a caretaker who tried, but ultimately got very little done compared to what they could’ve accomplished?
That’s just my theory. I think his tragic death, which traumatized the country, magnifies his legacy a lot more than it would’ve been otherwise, considering his actual accomplishments while in office.
When I place a President in the category of “Greats” it’s when they have a record of accomplishment at home on par with TR, FDR, and Johnson. Trans-formative change domestically.
The moon landing was something Kennedy was beginning to walk away from toward his death. If you listen to his tapes (he, like LBJ and Nixon, taped himself) he considered it a giant moneypit and was considering a joint Soviet-American mission to the Moon to be more practical. He even made a speech about the US and Soviets embarking on a joint mission in September 1963:
"In 1961, shortly after his election as president, John F. Kennedy announced that he was determined to win the “space race” with the Soviets. Since 1957, when the Soviet Union sent a small satellite–Sputnik–into orbit around the earth, Russian and American scientists had been competing to see who could make the next breakthrough in space travel. Outer space became another frontier in the Cold War. Kennedy upped the ante in 1961 when he announced that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Much had changed by 1963, however. Relations with the Soviet Union had improved measurably. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had been settled peacefully. A “hot line” had been established between Washington and Moscow to help avert conflict and misunderstandings. A treaty banning the open air testing of nuclear weapons had been signed in 1963. **On the other hand, U.S. fascination with the space program was waning. Opponents of the program cited the high cost of the proposed trip to the moon, estimated at more than $20 billion. In the midst of all of this, Kennedy, in a speech at the United Nations, proposed that the Soviet Union and United States cooperate in mounting a mission to the moon. “Why,” he asked the audience, “therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Kennedy noted, “the clouds have lifted a little” in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations, and declared “The Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements–agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko applauded Kennedy’s speech and called it a “good sign,” but refused to comment on the proposal for a joint trip to the moon. In Washington, there was a good bit of surprise–and some skepticism–about Kennedy’s proposal. The “space race” had been one of the focal points of the Kennedy administration when it came to office, and the idea that America would cooperate with the Soviets in sending a man to the moon seemed unbelievable. Other commentators saw economics, not politics, behind the proposal. With the soaring price tag for the lunar mission, perhaps a joint effort with the Soviets was the only way to save the costly program. What might have come of Kennedy’s idea is unknown–just two months later, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, abandoned the idea of cooperating with the Soviets but pushed ahead with the lunar program. In 1969, the United States landed a man on the moon, thus winning a significant victory the “space race.”**.”
You say baby-steps for Civil Rights - but such minute baby-steps and token gestures are what helped to inflame the Black Community’s anger. If baby-steps counted, than Grant’s record on Civil Rights alone should catapult him much higher than he is. Eisenhower made subtle moves on Civil Rights too, but that’s pretty much forgotten.
There would have been no way to be a “forgotten” President in the 60s. So many massive, nation-changing things were happening – he would have either been lauded for being on the right side of Civil Rights (which I think is most likely, had he survived), or spat upon for being on the wrong side. He either would have gotten us into proxy wars like Veitnam, or avoided them. He would have either cracked down on massive protests or welcomed them and worked with them. There’s no “forgettable” in the 60s. LBJ was on the right side of some issues (Civil Rights) and the wrong side of others (Vietnam), and he’s very, very far from forgotten.
I also disagree with your characterization of Clinton and (especially) Obama. I strongly suspect Obama is to liberals/Democrats what Reagan is/was to Republicans/conservatives, but only time will tell.
Those are still gestures that could easily have been challenged in the SC, or maneuvered around the way the South had maneuvered around Grant’s Civil Rights laws to create Jim Crow. Only a Southern President could truly bring Civil Rights, just as only Nixon could go to China.
I think Kennedy would have ended up picking up a lot of the flack that Johnson got.
People want to retroactively argue that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us so involved in Vietnam but history doesn’t support that argument. Kennedy did sometimes talk about leaving Vietnam but his actions were directed towards increasing our involvement. There’s no reason except hindsight to believe he wouldn’t have escalated the war from 1964 to 1968 pretty much the way Johnson did. If anything, Kennedy was more of a hawk than Johnson was.
And if that had been the case, the growing anti-war movement would have been directed against Kennedy. Kennedy would have been seen as the out-of-touch East Coast millionaire who was sending the sons of poor families in Middle America off to some foreign war.
A big question is what kind of Congress would have been elected in 1964 under Kennedy. Would it have been as liberal as the Johnson Congress was? If so then I expect he would have gotten the same domestic legislative accomplishments as Johnson did.
Also consider that Johnson kept the overwhelming majority of Kennedy’s cabinet his entire Presidency. McNamara was one of Kennedy’s “Best and Brightest” as was Rusk, and these two guys pushed the idea that we could go in, win and win quickly. It was the scientific, trusted opinions of these two guys who led Johnson down the path to war.
Also, as late as November 1963, Kennedy was getting us more involved in Vietnam - just two weeks before he died he removed Diem. There were 600 troops in Vietnam on the day Kennedy was inaugurated and 16,000 on the day he died.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a much, MUCH bigger issue both at the time and with the hindsight of history. Not to say that Eisenhower wouldn’t also have dealt with it successfully, but Kennedy made the right decisions at the right time and deserves the credit.
Certainly he does but my point is both Presidents handled a potential WWIII situation and got us out of it. One was higher priority than the other but still, both could easily (with the wrong President) have led to a conflict. Eisenhower’s handling of the U2 crisis is generally forgotten in terms of Presidents who handled crises well, IMO largely due to the perception that he was a “caretaker” President who did little more than play golf. I just believe if Kennedy had the same level of failures in his second term as he did in his first, he’d be remembered kind of like Ike is - only a tad more because he was so stylish.
He’d be the seen as a President who “could’ve, but didn’t.”
Also, if Kennedy continued down his path of doing a joint Lunar mission with the Soviets, the Moon Mission wouldn’t have been as big a deal for us as Americans. The Moon Mission was one of few bright spots in a decade of turmoil and probably the last nationalistic moment that united the majority of Americans behind that old “can do” spirit. We would’ve had Detente earlier, but look how easily Detente was rejected anyway in favor of rollback.
I also believe Reagan was inevitable and if Kennedy had been President to 1969, I can easily see a situation where Reagan wins in 1968 against LBJ or some other Democratic figure due to Democrat fatigue, and as a result we never get the EPA or other problems Nixon put in place and we go right back to the height of the Cold War, with a younger, more feisty Reagan in charge.
I don’t feel Reagan could have been elected in 1968. He would have lost like Goldwater did in 1964. The country wasn’t looking for their brand of conservatism in the sixties. It took the seventies to get people in a mood for a major shift to the right in 1980.
I’m not a fan of “what if” arguments in general. The only thing that can ever be said for sure is, that if things had been different, they wouldn’t have been the same.
Separately, making a judgment about a past President is always going to be a so-what’s-going-on-now kind of thing. Over time, various Presidents who were thought little of while they were in office, have come to be revered. And others who were very popular at the time, have been shown to have been very problematic at best.
And that gets even more complicated by the political games being played by the ongoing manipulators. Ronald Reagan is STILL being near worshiped by the Republican propagandists, even as they choose act after act that he clearly opposed, and even as they discard many of the ideals he supported. Someday when the dust of political nonsense is cleared from everyone’s eyes, it will be remembered how Reagan ignored the Constitution, got hundreds of Marines murdered to no effect in Lebanon, pushed an economic agenda that laid the groundwork for the economic near total collapse of 2005, and worse.
I think Reagan is a great comparison to Kennedy, because both were mythologized so much, during and since their time in office, that it’s difficult for anyone to see anything clearly about them. Kennedy died in office, and Reagan was nearly killed as well. Both served in times of tremendous transition in the world, both made huge mistakes in foreign affairs, and both managed to make it appear to their supporters that those mistakes were actually brave acts of idealism instead of the obviously idiotic messes that they really were.
As to propaganda and it’s effect: the Republicans have spent a long time and a lot of relatively quiet effort, undermining Kennedy’s legacy and mythology. They’ve done so very particularly, as a part of their larger strategy to make over American history in the old-style Soviet Union image, where they get to pretend that everything in our past, proves that they were always right, and the Democrats were always wrong. I suspect that this is what gave the OP the idea to start this thread, ultimately, though I’m sure the OP wouldn’t realize that.
I directly saw a lot of the anti-Kennedy propaganda get going, after Reagan left office, and the Republicans wanted petty revenge against the Democrats for a lot of festering resentments they’d built up over the years. The GOP HATED that Kennedy’s name had been attached to all sorts of important places following his assassination, and wanted Reagan’s name to be give the same treatment. They managed to get Cape Kennedy renamed Canaveral as a part of this propaganda push, and encouraged a lot of rewrites of history to emphasize more how much of a womanizer Kennedy was.
Renaming Cape Canaveral was a mistake, that name had a lot of history behind it and it just seemed over the top to rename it for Kennedy.
If Kennedy did nothing but handle the Cuban Missile Crisis as he did, I would consider him to be an above average president. Probably not worthy of coinage, but a good president nonetheless. One shudders to think what would have happened if W was a bit older and in the White House in October 1962 and not JFK.
Part of the problem of giving Kennedy credit for how he handled the Cuban missile crisis is that it is likely that it happened in part because of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, so Khrushchev thought he could push Kennedy around.
It sounds really cold-blooded to say it, but getting shot was the best thing Kennedy could have done for his legacy. It allowed LBJ, who knew better than practically any President how to get legislation passed, to push for the Civil Rights bill and the Great Society and the rest of it, because everyone wanted to show their respect for the glamorous young President who died way too soon. Unfortunately, that included Viet Nam.
If he wanted to inspire the nation, it worked. And NASA sure lasted beyond the end of the Camelot White House.
In a way, it was like the Peace Corps - an expression of the idealism of the 60s, instead of just adolescent rebellion and burning draft cards and whatnot.
I have heard the arguments that manned space flight isn’t all that efficient, and we can do most of the same things with robotics and probes, and I can’t argue with that. But if we are to go into space, and I think we should, we need to do it because it fires the imagination. As a tribute to the human spirit. But I am a hopeless space geek.
My best case scenario is that Kennedy lives, he wises up and pulls out of Viet Nam, and we spend the same amount of attention and money on the space program that we did on Viet Nam. Because I would have liked to live in a 1950s sci-fi fantasy world, except twenty years after the 1950s, with space colonies and interplanetary travel and jetpacks and flying cars and ray pistols.
And beautiful women that I rescue from the BEMs. Can’t forget those.