Was he that good?
I hope this comes as no surprise to most of you who are reading, but as I have stated many times on this site I am in the process of having a book published. In fact, I just received my first edited copy from my publisher and once again I am writing my rear end off.
One of the notions that actually appears in the introduction of the book is how much I believe our nation has changed over the years. An example of what I am trying to convey is that during our Founder’s time of creating a government — a Republican form of government — not to be misconstrued with the Republican Party. The Repub-lican form to a large degree was created to keep an eye or watch on our governing officials; we are to look, keep order, and watch after corruption and crime by said officials. This is the government that our Founding generation developed for us.
We, in their words, are to be civic-dutiful and exercising self-control. Civic virtue became a must for the Founder’s experiment to work. At the core of civic virtue was, in fact, the peoples’ right to property ownership; moreover, inextricably linked were the existence of equality, liberty, and freedom for everyone.
Right? What I am trying to illustrate is that may have been ideally what they wanted and up to the Civil War it may be what they got. However, I believe all of that is changed. I further believe that there have been decades or generations of graft, corruption, and crime in our government. I was just reading an article about, “Now that the Obama administration is over…look at what he did.” Yet, for tonight’s article, I’ve decided on this one.
He was killed more than half a century ago, and in the decades since, much of what shaped the hagiography has been stripped away. The images of the young husband and father, radiant wife by his side and adorable children cavorting in the Oval Office, have been overshadowed by reality; he was a reckless philanderer who took the mistress of a Mafia chieftain as a lover.
The image of a glamorous leader who embodied “vigor” concealed a man wracked by illness. The president who spoke in idealistic terms of public service abused the power of his office, tapping phones and unearthing tax returns to compel steel executives to rescind their price hikes. His administration sought for years to topple Fidel Castro and looked for ways to kill him. He ran in 1960 as a Cold Warrior, using false statistics about a nonexistent “missile gap,” and sent 16,000 “advisers” to Vietnam, deepening a commitment his successor pursued into the longest, most divisive war in our history.
And yet historians, a recent survey showed, rank John F. Kennedy as our eighth-best president, just below Jefferson and just above Reagan, although his tenure was the shortest of all but six chief executives. The public rates him as the best of all presidents since 1960.
He had entered the White House as a reluctant combatant in the fight for civil rights, accommodating segregationists who held congressional power by appointing racist judges. But when the foot soldiers of the civil rights fight staged sit-ins and demonstrations, he told the nation on June 11, 1963, that “we are confronted … with a moral issue as clear as the American Constitution,” and proposed a sweeping public accommodations bill that made him a pariah in the South and threatened his reelection.
Back then, polls showed that three-quarters of Americans (75%!) believed that the government did what was right all or most of the time. Within a decade, after the twin blows of Vietnam and Watergate, barely a third of Americans held that trust.
We have long since learned that “Camelot” was a carefully constructed myth, driven by his widow and his acolytes. We have long since learned that Kennedy was a man with deep character flaws. But he was also a president who, unlike so many who followed, understood the limits of power, who learned from his mistakes, whose public prudence during the most dangerous of times, may have helped avoid a nuclear war.
So if half a century on, we still wonder at what might have been, it is more than an exercise in mythology. There is a genuine case to be made that in his death, we lost the possibility of a very different world.