JFK is duly venerated, but was he really great?

November 22, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

BOSTON -- He is venerated as a champion of civil rights when, in reality, he was furious with the Freedom Riders, who forced him to act before he was ready to embrace the cause of racial equality.

He is hailed as an apostle of world peace when, in truth, he was one of the coldest of the cold warriors and conspired to assassinate some Third World leaders, including Fidel Castro and South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem.

In fact, 30 years after he was killed in Dallas, John F. Kennedy is considered by the American public to have been the greatest of presidents, easily outranking Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Washington. One recent survey even has him tied with Lincoln as the most influential world figure of the past 1,000 years.

And yet Kennedy's public mystique stands in stark contrast to the emerging verdict among historians: that he entered office unprepared and improved little in three years.

He is remembered as an idealist, but students of his presidency increasingly conclude that he was a cunning and cold-eyed realist, even a cynic. His belated embrace of the civil rights cause was due in large part to political calculation. And a strong case can be made that he would have prosecuted the Vietnam War as vigorously as his successors did, with much the same result.

Revelations about his personal life show him to have been addicted to sex and danger, and under constant medication that may have affected his judgment.

But even if the flesh-and-blood Kennedy falls short of the heroic standard, he is accorded mythical stature in the national memory.

Historians can find only one explanation: the manner of his sudden and shocking death.

"The image of Kennedy is not based on what he accomplished but on his promise, the hope he held out," says presidential scholar Stephen Ambrose of the University of New Orleans. "There's a very strong sense that if he had not died, we would not have suffered the 30 years of nightmare that followed -- the race riots, the white backlash, assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, runaway inflation, Iran-contra."

There are other factors: his youth (he was 43 at his inauguration in 1961), his looks, his wit and his charm. He brought style, zest and optimism to a country that had embraced the inertia of the 1950s after two decades of depression and war. His glamorous family fascinated the world and set a tone for Americans during unprecedented prosperity, material consumption and growth.

Kennedy was blessed with magnificent ghost writers and speech writers, who allowed him to project the image of an intellectual when his tastes ran to Sinatra and starlets.

This carefully crafted public JFK was eagerly consumed by the American people.

That image was aided by Kennedy's natural reserve, his essential opaqueness, which concealed his true thoughts and feelings from even those closest to him. Those who met with Kennedy left his office believing he agreed with them and would take the action they had recommended. But frequently that was not the case.

"Because of his death, he remains unfinished. The sense of possibility he left allows people to project back onto him not only what he might have become, but what they and the country might have become," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Unfair, cries Charles U. Daly, director of the John F. Kennedy Library overlooking Boston Harbor. Mr. Daly believes that ordinary historical standards cannot be applied to the 35th president.

Rather, his greatness lies in the "intangibles." If he had not been a great president, Mr. Daly asks, "Then why the hell are you here 30 years later?"

Mr. Daly's own answer: Kennedy must be ranked among the greatest American leaders "for making us really believe."

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