The legacy of President John F. Kennedy is a wondrous thing. Any president compared with Kennedy comes up short, even if his actual accomplishments were greater than JFK’s. Presidents in the modern era can never measure up to JFK in the public’s mind, period. Today, 50 years after JFK’s death, it’s still unwise to tangle with the Kennedy clan. The Kennedys usually win. Kennedy’s legacy also means that referring to him as anything but a liberal is sure to provoke an argument.
Kennedy spent only 1,036 days in the White House, yet a Gallup poll in early November found he has the highest rating of any president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Seventy-four percent said JFK would go down in history as an outstanding or above average president. Ronald Reagan came in second (61 percent), followed by Bill Clinton (55) and Eisenhower (49). Far behind was Lyndon Johnson (20), who not only pushed JFK’s leftover agenda through Congress but also enacted his own historic package of Great Society bills.
“No flesh-and-blood politician can compete with the larger-than-life monument that is John Kennedy,” writes politics professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in his book The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy. “For Democrats, he was long ago elevated to Mount Rushmore. For Democratic and Republican presidents, Kennedy has presented a different challenge. They cannot vie with an apparition.”
That’s not all. “Presidents are boxed in today in ways Kennedy was not,” Sabato said in an interview. “It isn’t just much tougher press coverage of an officeholder’s private life. In JFK’s time, presidents were placed on a pedestal. We never do that anymore. Maybe we’ve learned too much about their foibles and mistakes . . . the magisterial cloak has been stripped from them. Also, partisan polarization makes it difficult for a president to win the support of the other party’s voters for very long.”
Kennedy has still another advantage. “In part because of [his] assassination, Americans are not inclined to focus on his shortcomings,” according to Sabato. “The public’s tolerant view of Kennedy’s extramarital affairs while president is noteworthy.” Indeed it is. In a survey conducted for Sabato’s book, many respondents made a distinction between JFK the president and JFK the man to explain why his womanizing hadn’t affected their lofty view of him as president.
For subsequent presidents, getting along with the Kennedy family and political clique is fairly simple but requires discipline. Those who refer favorably to JFK in speeches, quote him often, and embrace his widow, children, and relatives—they fare quite well. Presidents who don’t, especially those who get in squabbles with the Kennedy tribe, suffer.
Reagan and Clinton kept the Kennedys close to them. “Reagan enthusiastically sought to forge a legacy partnership, using selective policies and a warm bond with President Kennedy’s surviving family,” Sabato writes. “Never in modern times . . . has a president of one party utilized the words and policies of a president of the other party so much as Reagan did with Kennedy.” It made the policies linked to JFK harder for Democrats to attack.
Clinton idolized Kennedy, having met him as a 16-year-old visitor to the JFK White House. He “stayed close to Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy family throughout his presidency,” Sabato writes. He copied Kennedy, and his “mainly popular two-term presidency is a measure of his success in capitalizing on JFK’s style and rhetoric.”
President Jimmy Carter clashed with Senator Ted Kennedy and paid a price for it. Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. “Ted Kennedy was a pain in my ass the last two years I was in office—the worst problem I had [during] the last two years,” Carter told Sabato.
Was Ted Kennedy a legitimate surrogate for his brother? Sabato believes he was. “In the general population Ted was seen as having inherited JFK’s and [brother] Bobby’s mantle,” Sabato told me. “Ted was clearly much more liberal than Jack, and back in the 1970s and ’80s, when Ted had hoped to win the White House, a left-wing ideological profile didn’t fit the times.”
In his book, Sabato makes a strong case for JFK as a pragmatist, “partly left and partly right.” Liberalism “had little to do with John Kennedy’s motives. The long view of JFK’s career reveals that he was eager to define himself as more anticommunist, pro-defense, anticrime, pro-business, and cautious on civil rights than many of his contemporaries in both parties. John Kennedy was no leftist.”