Monday, November 11, 2013

The Kennedy Mystique

So now, with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination nearly upon us, we are being subjected to a fusillade of re-evaluations and reassessments, even some sober second thoughts. There's always been a world of Kennedy skeptics (not to mention haters) out there, looking to torch any Camelot-like remembrances. And the impact of Kennedy's presidency is being diminished by emphasis on the slim amount of legislation passed during his time in office--actually, it probably looks better in this age of total deadlock on the Hill.

As usual, the pundits and the professors are missing the point. Kennedy's impact could not be measured after his death in terms of enacted legislation or other such metrics. It still can't. Memory of JFK is not some gauzy phantasma. Today it seems tempting to take him down a peg for his amazing charm but he understood most of all that it was part of his stock in trade.

To me, two important points need to be stressed in any discussion of Kennedy's impact on the U.S. and the world. First, recent analyses of the Cuban missile crisis credit Kennedy with being the only power able to restrain what were then our even more bloodthirsty generals and admirals who were hell bent on bombing Cuba and possibly bringing on a nuclear world war.  Those guys--yes, they were all guys, of course--still believed a nuclear war could be fought and won. Or that if we had one person or city standing more than the Soviets did, we would have been the winners.

Today's reassessment in the New York Times referred to a remark by Dean Acheson that Kennedy was "damned lucky" that the crisis ended well. And others blamed Kennedy for showing weakness,ultimately bringing down Khrushchev because the latter blinked first, and then even for the resulting Soviet military buildup.  In reality, Kennedy and one Soviet submariner who held his comrades back from attacking were the only ones--joined ultimately by Khrushchev--who tried to defuse the situation along with eliminating the missile threat in Cuba.  Acheson--despite his earlier successes as Secretary of State under Truman--had become one of the hawks; he had no business criticizing Kennedy for accomplishing what he didn't even conceive of trying.

Second, it is misguided at best and craven at worst to put down Kennedy's positive impact on the outlook of America's citizenry, especially what was then the younger generation. Kennedy did inspire a generation toward public service. He did make people feel that things could get better. He had a magical quality of bringing out the best in people. Many of us only appreciated how rare this was when we saw that no president since then has had that quality and that orientation.

The only one who came close might be classed as his evil twin, Ronald Reagan, who succeeded in convincing all too many misguided souls that government was the enemy.  Lyndon Johnson could have been much greater had he resisted the call of Vietnam.  Both he and Nixon were skilled at getting programs enacted into law. Yet both are recalled poorly because of the huge disasters their warped personalities brought on.

Things got even worse. Bush Junior was the rock bottom of the trend toward inequality and caring only for the rich and powerful. Carter and Clinton played ball much too closely with the Wall Streeters who affected Democratic (and democratic) guises. You know how bad things have become when Nixon's administration starts to look good, which with regard to much domestic policy, it does. Yet Nixon began the process of conservatizing the Supreme Court. That, by the way, was one of Kennedy's weak points--he was too enamoured of Byron White, the jock, and made the mistake of putting him on the court instead of a real progressive.

But Kennedy inspired a generation. None of the pygmies who claw at his memory can take that away. No one may agree with all that he did--even if the evidence that he wanted to stay out or get out of Vietnam grows stronger. He was a rare good result of our electoral process. Would that we had his like to elect today.

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