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The Image Endures

JFK's approval remains sky-high.

1:32 PM, Dec 7, 2010 • By JAY COST
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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.

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