Archive for the ‘Dallek’ Category

Kennedy

Enduring Legacy and Debate

The abbreviated presidency and unfinished life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is, 48 years after his murder in Dallas, one enduring subject in our politics that can launch a thousand debates.

Was Kennedy a mediocre, adequate or great president?  Is the “myth” of Camelot or the “substance” of a star crossed and tragic tenure just so much rosy memory or was Kennedy’s short presidency a grand testament to a simpler, elegant, even better time?

Would Kennedy have avoided Vietnam or would his hawkish anti-Communism have taken us precisely where Lyndon Johnson eventually did? And just who was Kennedy? Was he the pampered, womanizing son of vast wealth who floated through his 1,000 days with little to show for it or was he the tough, demanding, even brutally efficient Irish-Catholic intellectual who overcame debilitating health problems to be the cool head in the room handling the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Since everyone seems to have a Kennedy opinion these days, I’ll offer my own: Kennedy was all of the above and, curiously, the complexity of the man, the inability to fit him neatly into a liberal box, the roguish charm masking a unrelenting ambition make him all the more interesting. Like all truly fascinating people, Jack Kennedy was many men – all touched by unthinkable tragedy – and that, I believe, is why the fascination with him never seems to diminish.

The Kennedy Cult

Ross Douthat, the young conservative columnist for the New York Times set off the most recent round of Kennedy introspection with a piece entitled “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Douthat set out to debunk three of what he sees as the most offensive Kennedy “myths” – that JFK was a good president who, had he lived, might have been a great one; that he would have kept us from the awful Vietnam disaster and that Kennedy governed during a time of vitriolic right wing hatred of everything he did and stood for.

Summing up, Douthat wrote of Kennedy: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame.”

Kennedy’s best and most even handed biographer, Robert Dallek, felt compelled to respond to Douthat’s “anti-Kennedy overkill” with a letter to the editor.  Dallek’s book – An Unfinished Life - was the first to report in detail on Kennedy’s health problems and remains the best and most comprehensive story of the man.

“No serious historian,” Dallek wrote to the Times, “would suggest that John F. Kennedy’s unfinished presidency deserves to be ranked with those of Washington, Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he deserves better than Mr. Douthat gives him.”

Dallek has written elegantly and convincingly about why it is that Kennedy’s reputation still soars and Ronald Reagan’s, as well. Dallek argues it has less to do with bills passed or wars won than with the sense of hope and possibility both men brought to the bully pulpit of the White House.

“What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for,” Dallek wrote recently. “Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.”

“The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums,” Dallek wrote. “All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.”

Vietnam

For as long as we debate the legacy of Vietnam there will questions of whether Kennedy, had he lived to be re-elected in 1964, would have been smart enough to keep the U.S. commitment to southeast Asia in check. The late Idaho Sen. Frank Church was convinced, as he told me in the late 1970′s, that Kennedy would never have committed U.S. ground troops in the way Johnson did. Church’s opinion was also held by Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorensen, among many others.

Truth be told there is no way of knowing what he would have done, but the lessons he learned from both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis surely had an impact on Kennedy who may have been, in terms of American and world history, the best read president since Teddy Roosevelt.

Best Sellers

Kennedy is also the subject of two current best sellers by Stephen King and Chris Matthews. King’s massive new book titled simply 11/22/63 imagines what might have been – the Kennedy assassination foiled by a time traveler. Matthews’ book – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero - is an unabashed valentine to a kind of political leader that Matthews argues no longer seems to exist.

As to the times when Kennedy governed, Frank Rich’s recent piece in New York Magazine draws parallels between 1963 and 2011. “What defines the Kennedy legacy today,” Rich writes, “is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.”

Rich has been defending his piece against, among others Ross Douthat. Rich’s “delusional” piece, in the view of another conservative commentator, uses “tortured logic” to show that “President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right.” Lee Harvey Oswald was, of course, to the extent he had a political philosophy, more a Communist sympathizer than a John Bircher.

Still what really struck me in reading Rich’s take on 1963 were the selection of letters to the editor of the Dallas Morning News printed over the weeks before Kennedy made his fateful trip to Texas 48 Novembers ago.

A letter writer from Wichita Falls wrote in 1963: “The Kennedy regime tends to lead toward socialism, as shown in its soft policies regarding the Cuban situation and its constant concessions to the Soviet Union in nuclear-test-ban-treaty negotiations. The many failures of the administration are clearly shown to the public. The inefficiency of its policies has lost America prestige and has weakened our bonds with the major European countries.

“Any person who supports John Kennedy in 1964 not only is illiterate of the means of democracy but is supporting a truly socialistic regime.”

And this from a Kennedy opponent from Waco, who referred to the president as “One-Term John,” a politician so unpopular in “Central Texas that in the past three weeks I have had only one customer threaten to cease doing business with me because of remarks made concerning the dynasty and its accomplishments.

“In fact, I now expect business to pick up as the full impact of the truth finally makes its impression upon the party faithful who heretofore could neither see, hear, nor speak of the evils in a socialistic dictatorship until the confrontation by Gov. Wallace of naked federal power and encroachment upon state and individual rights at Tuscaloosa, Ala.”

The last reference, of course, was to Kennedy’s efforts to enforce federal law and permit two black students to enroll – over the schoolhouse door protests of Gov. George Wallace – at the University of Alabama.

(Kennedy’s role – some would say Kennedy’s reluctance - to push harder on civil rights is still regularly debated, as Ross Douthat and others have noted. Yet, appreciating Kennedy’s well-developed sense of humor, it’s easy to believe that he would appreciate the irony of the Crimson Tide’s quest for a national football title riding on the broad shoulders of team that in 2011 starts only five white players.)

The letters make a striking point. The hatred for John Kennedy, like Obama, was real and the misrepresentation of his views - JFK was no more a socialist than Obama – was palpable. A moderately dispassionate conservative today, one who dislikes everything Obama has done, would have to admit that those letters to a Dallas newspaper nearly a half century ago bares an eerie resemblance to today’s doings on FOX News.

The Kennedy Cult, or whatever you care to call it, persists because his presidency – both style and substance – still matters. It’s impact survives through generations. We don’t have great debates about the Cult of Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison because they did not help define a generation or bring a particular power of personality and passion to our politics. Few presidents have. Kennedy did.

We will be debating the importance of Kennedy – or Reagan for that matter – for as long as we care about what can occasionally be the uplifting quality of our politics. As Bob Dallek says, and this is particularly true at a time when our politics seem so polarized and unproductive, we hanker for the “right man (or woman) with the right formula.” If only it were that easy.

Leadership

Perhaps the true enduring legacy of a John Kennedy is really much less complicated than it might appear. At his core Kennedy was serious and incredibly ambitious. He had an approach to the job of being a senator and a president. He was a genuine and talented student of history. He wrote and spoke well. He was curious and tough as a politician and demanding as a boss. Matthews relates the story of Kennedy firing a long-time friend who he came to believe wasn’t doing his job well enough. At the same time he inspired tremendous loyalty and great affection and still does.

In short, the Kennedy legacy is one of leadership lifted by inspiration. The guy had it and we still gravitate to it and that is the real Cult of Kennedy.

 

JFK…What If

Said Death Would Protect Legacy

John Kennedy’s best biographer made a startling revelation recently that was both ominous and eerie and says a good deal about Kennedy’s appreciation of how history works.

Robert Dallak, author of An Unfinished Life, the best book on the 35th president, gave a speech recently in Ireland where he said Jackie Kennedy was told by her husband a year before his death that his assassination would protect his legacy. “If someone is going to kill me,” Kennedy told his wife, “it should happen now.”

The Kennedy comment is contained in an oral history interview that Mrs. Kennedy did in 1964 with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  The comment came shortly after Kennedy’s success defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie Kennedy sat for a series of seven interviews that have been held all these years under lock and key. The material will finally be made public in September and will be featured in an ABC broadcast.

According to Dallek, Kennedy had one of Abraham Lincoln’s great biographers, David Herbert Donald, to the White House for a lecture. Kennedy asked the distinguished historian whether Lincoln would be as fondly remembered today if he had not been shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth as his second term was just beginning.

Donald said no. In all likelihood, Donald said, had he lived, Lincoln would have become caught up in the messy and protracted fights over Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where southern states were brought back into the Union and bitter battles raged over civil rights. As a result, Lincoln’s reputation as a great war leader may well have suffered. Kennedy, reflecting on that “what if” of history, then told his wife if someone was going to kill him, they best do it soon as his legacy would be more secure.

A few months later, Kennedy died at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy, therefore, is remembered as the glamorous and martyred young president who blundered into the Bay of Pigs, but took responsibility for the mess, who served as the cool head in the room during the Cuban Missile Crisis and expressed grave doubts about American involvement in Vietnam even as he sent U.S. advisers there.

So, what if? How would we think about JFK today had he lived to defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964 and serve out a second term? Would he have avoided the quagmire in southeast Asia? Liberated from re-election pressures, would Kennedy have stood up to the “domino theorists” who argued, mostly successfully, that the U.S. had to make a stand against Communist expansion in Indochina or the entire region would fall under influence of Moscow?

Would Kennedy have been as successful – or as committed – as Lyndon Johnson was in passing civil rights legislation? Would Kennedy have found a way to rapprochement with Castro? He loved his cigars, after all. And what of the Soviet Union? After taking the measure of Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis, would JFK have been able to cut a nuclear arms deal with the blustery, but very smart, Soviet leader?

And there is the second term factor. Generally second terms in the White House are susceptible to fatigue, drift and an almost inevitable diminishment of presidential power, no matter who is in the office. Would JFK have had a successful second term? He might well have beaten Goldwater badly, as Johnson eventually did in ’64, and had a mandate to act on a broad range of issues, or he might have squandered a big mandate and his popularity, as Franklin Roosevelt did after his big re-election victory in 1936.

This much is known. John Kennedy had a deep appreciation of history. We now know his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage benefited greatly from the deft wordsmithing of the late Ted Sorensen, but that hardly diminishes the reality of Kennedy’s understanding and insight into the wonderful political stories contained in his book. I’ve also always thought it interesting and telling that JFK had Schlesinger, a historian of the presidency, as a White House insider.

In surveys done in 2010, a third of Americans rank Kennedy as a “great president” and the vast majority says he was above average. The professional historians ranked him sixth in presidential leadership just ahead of Jefferson. Interestingly, Kennedy was the only president in the Top 10 ranked by historians who was elected only once.

As Bob Dallek has said: “For style and for creating a mood of optimism and hope — Kennedy on that count is as effective as any president the country has had in its history. The question for me is, 100 years from now, will he be remembered? … “

“At the moment, he does have this astonishing hold on the public mind.”

 Kennedy, it seems, also had an ability to visualize his own legacy.

 

Dallek on Obama

dallekHealth Care Reform: A Lasting Legacy or Not

Robert Dallek, biographer of Kennedy and LBJ and skilled analyst of White House leadership, is, I believe, the best of the “presidential historians.” Dallek is evenhanded, accomplished and always engaging in making the historical connections between, say Barack Obama’s push this year for health care reform and Franklin Roosevelt’s advocacy of Social Security in the 1930′s.

Dallek’s op-ed piece this week in the Wall Street Journal is a fitting wrap-up of this year in presidential politics and a must read.

Here is a key section: “If the reform works as intended by expanding health insurance to an additional 30 million Americans and reducing the national debt, the Democrats will pillory the Republicans for the indefinite future. The GOP’s uniform opposition—only one congressman and no Republican senators supported the bill—will make it vulnerable to charges of wrong-minded thinking about the suffering of fellow citizens on a scale with Herbert Hoover’s failed response to the Great Depression. That cost his party five presidential elections.

“Should the bill fall short of promised gains, it will reinforce national prejudices against big government and facilitate another round of conservative Republican dominance of national politics.”

That pretty well sums it up.

Watch for Bob Dallek’s new book in the new year: The Lost Peace – Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope. HarperCollins is the publisher.