Fifty years after the death of John F. Kennedy, there’s no mystery about why his brief presidency remains an object of fascination: It was glamorous, photogenic, and cut short by an assassination that still seems an insoluble puzzle. Compared to the full-color images of Kennedy and his wife on our television screens this month, other figures of his era seem gray.
Still, it’s remarkable that Kennedy’s iconic stature in the eyes of most Americans has weathered half a century of assaults, some of them from his own archives, as the less savory side of Camelot has slowly come to light.
We’ve learned the details of his relentless womanizing, which extended to plying a 19-year-old White House intern with daiquiris and then having sex with her.
We’ve learned more about the perilous health of a man who in 1960 declared himself “the healthiest candidate for president,” including that he had Addison’s disease, a serious disorder of the adrenal gland, and that he relied on cocktails of painkillers injected by his physicians.
And we’ve learned that historians don’t think Kennedy was such a great president.
In a succession of Gallup polls, Kennedy is regularly ranked alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in the pantheon of great presidents – joined in recent years by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Part of Kennedy’s outsized stature can be attributed to his having been photogenic and witty, undeniable virtues in a chief executive.
But the public also seems to give JFK credit for accomplishments that weren’t actually his, such as the civil rights laws that Lyndon B. Johnson got passed. At the same time, he is not held responsible for the failures of his successor in Vietnam, even though he laid the foundation for an increased U.S. role in Southeast Asia.
There’s at least one important issue on which Kennedy may deserve more credit than the public gives him: He helped remove nuclear weapons from the military options that presidents consider using. He took the first steps toward mutual arms reduction with the Soviet Union at a time when a nuclear war seemed plausible and arms control was politically risky.
Instead, Kennedy is revered for his image and his ability to deploy stirring language of destiny and determination.
When we mourn Kennedy, we mourn the lost promise of the early 1960s, when the American economy delivered a good middle-class living to many and when American power believed itself capable of pacifying the world.
Kennedy’s tenure turned out to be the hinge between an age of optimism and an age of chaos.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.