Three Myths About President Kennedy

Ross Douthat dispels the myths about the Lord of American Camelot in his op-ed, The Enduring Cult of Kennedy – NYTimes.com:

The first premise is that Kennedy was a very good president, and might have been a great one if he’d lived. Few serious historians take this view: It belongs to Camelot’s surviving court stenographers, and to popularizers like Chris Matthews, whose new best seller “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” works hard to gloss over the thinness of the 35th president’s actual accomplishments. [...]

In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as “incomplete.” The harsher view would deem him a near disaster — ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward. (And the latter judgment doesn’t even take account of the medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency, or the adulteries that eclipsed Bill Clinton’s for sheer recklessness.)

The second false premise is that Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam. [...] Actually, it would be more accurate to describe the Vietnam War as Kennedy’s darkest legacy. [...]

The third myth is that Kennedy was a martyr to right-wing unreason. Writing on J.F.K. in the latest issue of New York magazine, Frank Rich half-acknowledges the mediocrity of Kennedy’s presidency. [...] This connection is the purest fantasy, made particularly ridiculous by the fact that both Rich and King acknowledge that Oswald was a leftist — a pro-Castro agitator whose other assassination target was the far-right segregationist Edwin Walker. [...]

This last example suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. [...]