I was reminded yesterday of the single greatest public relations coup of the 20th century. Late last month, the Gallup poll asked Americans to evaluate how recent presidents handled their job in the White House. The big news for the political class was that 47 percent of respondents approved of George W. Bush, slightly better than Barack Obama's approval. That was striking to me as well, but not as much as where John F. Kennedy stood on the list:
Personally, I think Kennedy was a fine president, indeed a good one in many respects. The recent Siena College presidential rankings had him coming in at #11, and insofar as I think presidential rankings are a valid enterprise, that seems like a pretty decent spot in my estimation.
Nevertheless, I remain awestruck by the power of the Kennedy image, which as you can see still has a powerful effect on public thinking. It's worth noting here that a majority of Gallup respondents probably lack firsthand knowledge of the Kennedy presidency. After all, those who were old enough to vote in the 1960 election would be no younger than 71 years old today.And inconvenient facts about the Kennedy record have been largely forgotten or at least overlooked as the years have gone by. For instance:
(1) When liberals think of the 1940s and 1950s, they are wont to lament the rise of McCarthyism, but Kennedy was not by any stretch a vigorous opponent of Joe McCarthy. In fact, he was the lone Democrat not to vote to condemn McCarthy in the Senate (he didn't vote at all). He also distinguished himself during the 1960 presidential campaign by running against the "missile gap" with the Soviets, the reality of which was, at best, debatable. Eisenhower tried through intermediaries to persuade JFK that there was no gap, but was fearful that public leaks would tipoff to the Soviets just how much the U.S. knew about their capabilities.
(2) His 14-year career in the Congress was fairly undistinguished, as Kennedy focused more on angling for the next job rather than promoting good policy. For instance, Kennedy voted strategically on amendments to the 1957 Civil Rights Act to keep all sides happy in the increasingly clunky Democratic coalition.
(3) Accordingly, he was not the darling of the left, and to win the nomination in 1960 he had to defeat Hubert Humphrey in the primaries and stop a late-breaking movement to nominate Adlai Stevenson. Eleanor Roosevelt had publicly complained that JFK had "dodged the McCarthy issue in 1954." In 1960, she supported Stevenson.
(4) His domestic record as president was mixed at best. The 87th Congress (1961-62) had a Democratic House majority of 262-175, but that depended entirely on the conservative South, which had by that point formed a loose but effective alliance with northern Republicans to block liberal legislation. This helps explain why Kennedy got very little of substance through this Congress. But even so, he was often regarded as aloof and uninvolved in the legislative process.
(5) He showed a great ability to grow and develop when it came to foreign affairs, as is evidenced by his much-celebrated handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even so, he still has to take responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
So, why is Kennedy rembered so loftily, considering these very real limitations? A big part of it, obviously, is the assassination, which is forever seared into our minds because of the Zapruder film. But I think there is more to it than that. Before and after his presidency, the Kennedy image was the product of a very effective public relations campaign to present JFK in a certain way.
Prior to the presidency, Kennedy could often be found on the cover of Life magazine with such hard-hitting exposés as "Senator Kennedy Goes A Courting." This was part of a conscious effort to market Kennedy in advance of his presidential run, to present him as a young, vigorous leader. The Kennedys were ahead of their time in understanding how to generate positive press coverage. Joe Kennedy had been involved in the movie business, and JFK himself had worked as a newspaperman. During the 1960 Democratic primary in Wisconsin, an exasperated Humphrey rhetorically asked of JFK, “Does he own all the newspapers or does he have something on every publisher?” Of course he didn't, but the Kennedy family understood the press and were thus able to sell an image, one that was often contrary to the facts. For instance, those "legendary" Kennedy touch football games masked the fact that JFK's health was very poor. He suffered from Addison's disease and colitis, and was regularly in and out of the hospital.
After his assassination, there were three different sets of political actors who each burnished the JFK image. The first, most obviously, was his brother Robert F. Kennedy, but he wasn't the only one. Lyndon Johnson's famous "Let Us Continue" speech to the 88th Congress after the assassination explicitly exhorted the legislature to pass the New Frontier legislative program in memory of the "greatest leader of our time:"
On the 20th day of January, in 19 and 61, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished "in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet." "But," he said, "let us begin."
This is our challenge -- not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment, but to continue on our course so that we may fulfill the destiny that history has set for us.
The Congress listened -- and in relatively short order passed Kennedy's tax cut, the Civil Rights Act, and LBJ's Economic Opportunity Act.
Finally, you had an early clique of hagiographical writers, often connected to the JFK administration, who described Kennedy in very flattering terms. Arthur Schlesinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is the best example of this. :
...come close to recapturng the exceptional qualities of John F. Kennedy as a man and as a President. But I hope it will suggest something of the way in which he quickened the heart and mind of the nation, inspired the young, met great crises, led our society to new possibilities of justice and our world to new possibilities of peace and left behind so glowing an imperishable a memory.
And all that was before breakfast!
What to make of all this? Obviously, you can't construct an image out of whole cloth, and there is a lot to recommend Kennedy, who enjoyed amazingly high approval ratings all through his brief tenure. The twenty years between Eisenhower and Reagan were the most tumultuous of any since World War II, and Kennedy strikes me as a substantially better president than Carter, Johnson, and Nixon (while Ford,who inherited the job under impossibly difficult circumstances, is quite under-appreciated). What's more, of all the major contenders for the 1960 presidential nomination (not only Nixon, but also Johnson, Humphrey, Stevenson), Kennedy easily comes across as the best of the lot. Even so, the reverential way in which Kennedy is remembered is due in part to the strategically constructed images that surrounded him in both life and death. As the Gallup poll pretty clearly demonstrates, those images endure, even 50 years on.