At the peak of America’s military, and economic power, a youthful and good-looking president enamored the American people and the world. Kennedy, like all of us had innumerable flaws. He had Addison’s disease. In many ways he symbolized male sexual privilege. Many historians and biographers suggest that Kennedy was all appearance and no substance.
But Kennedy’s 35-month presidency was tumultuous. His administration ricocheted from crisis to fiasco. He was not universally loved at home. Kennedy was a reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation. But when he called for it, many whites in the South were enraged. It was Lyndon Johnson who deployed his own far more impressive political acumen to get the landmark civil rights act signed.
Abroad, Kennedy embraced a policy of insurgency. The disaster at the Bay of Pigs invasion on Cuba had a lasting impact on the Kennedy administration. The administration initiated Operation Mongoose — a plan to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban government and economy. The plan included the possibility of assassinating Fidel Castro. The relationship between Cuba and the United States remains strained. Kennedy backed a coup in what was then South Vietnam, which resulted in the murder of President Ngo Dinh Nhu. And upon is death left Lyndon Johnson a deteriorating situation.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) International Survey released last Friday revealed that 90 percent of all Americans approve of how Kennedy handled his job as president. No other President of the last half-century even comes close. Ronald Reagan comes second with 78 percent, followed by Bill Clinton with 74 percent. Americans have elevated Kennedy to the league of great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
These are incredible ratings, considering that Kennedy was in office for just 1036 days. What did Kennedy really accomplish?
At 43 years of age, Kennedy brought to the White House an image of youth and vigor. He was a great communicator with charisma. His election campaign against Richard Nixon was on the promise to “get the country moving again.” Kennedy had a sense of the importance of inspirational leadership and was determined to deploy it to the full.
Kennedy’s inaugural address is one of the finest in presidential rhetoric. At the outset he purposed to blunt the sting of his party’s victory when he said, “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom –– symbolizing an end as well as a beginning -- signifying renewal as well as change”.
Kennedy appealed to sacrifice from all of us, Americans and all of mankind, when he urged; “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man”.
Kennedy carved a stone of hope from the mountain of distrust following the Cuban missile crisis. On June 10, 1963, his finest and most inspiring speech, aimed at easing Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. “Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor; it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union”. Kennedy followed this speech up by negotiating the so-called Limited Test Ban Treaty.
In my view Kennedy’s short tenure was transformational and defined the modern presidency. The essence of the modern presidency is in inspiring and exhorting a country and its citizens to do better. The presidency must be about advancing the ideals of personal liberty, freedom of press, merit, equality, justice and the rule of law.
The presidency must be about inspiring hope, individual excellence and national exceptionalism. Acts like building super highways, modernizing the railway or bringing technology to the classroom are bureaucratic, transactional and not worthy of record in presidential legacy.