John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited

By Paul Harper; Joann P. Krieg | Go to book overview

John F. Kennedy: President and Politician

Thomas E. Cronin

He dazzled the nation as a politician and as our thirty-fourth president. Yet his presidency is difficult to evaluate. His record was a mixed one. Even he was dissatisfied with the results, although he was more pleased with his third year than with his first two.

Three things are striking about the way John F. Kennedy is viewed today. First, he is regarded as one of the patron saints of progressives, and yet the revisionists, with some justification, say he did little or nothing to help the truly needy during his three years in office. At the end of his term the poor were still poor, the voiceless were still voiceless, and, if anything, the gap between rich and poor had widened. Second, interpretive appraisals of his presidency range along a lengthy spectrum from those reverential books written by his former aides and acquaintances, to the condemnatory rebukes of revisionists on the right and left. Finally, Kennedy's name looms exceedingly large for the generation born after his death, yet very few in that age group can identify or discuss his accomplishments in any detail. Time and again, this generation will say they believe Kennedy was a great leader, a courageous and wonderful person, but they will admit they are puzzled or even confused about why he is so memorable.

The analysis that follows treats the myth and the substance with a special focus on Kennedy as a political leader. Kennedy yearned to be more than a conventional politician and orthodox power broker, but to get to the White House he had first to be both. His presidential campaign promised marked change, but perhaps his unusually great popularity in his first two years stems from his deliberately cautious approach to using the powers of his office. It is important to note, in contrast, that in the third year when he began to venture out and let his convictions shape more of his leadership, his popularity declined.

Kennedy had written an eloquent book on the need for courage in politics,

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