Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was shot to death in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963. We asked Robert Gilbert, an expert in presidential politics and the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science, to assess Kennedy’s legacy and shed insight on his book in progress on one of the most iconic political figures in American history.
President Kennedy’s portrayal in textbooks has “evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments,” according to an assessment by The New York Times. What is your assessment of Kennedy’s tenure in the White House, which lasted just 1,037 days?
I see Kennedy as a leader who matured dramatically during the almost three years of his presidency. His term got off to a disturbingly poor start despite his stirring Inaugural Address. In April of 1961 came the horrendous Bay of Pigs invasion, which embarrassed the United States and humiliated Kennedy. He, after all, had approved it, not asking key questions of the military and others that should certainly have been asked and answered. But Kennedy learned quickly from this mistake. In the fall of 1962, he dominated the decision-making processes during the Cuban missile crisis and rejected outright the unanimous recommendation of his key advisers who called for U.S. airstrikes to eliminate Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Instead, Kennedy insisted on a much less provocative—and a much less explosive—naval blockade. As we now know, the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, peace was maintained, and Kennedy followed up these gains by launching his “policy of accommodation” with the Soviet Union. This led in the summer of 1963 to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited for signatory nations the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In other words, Kennedy improved sharply as he acquired more seasoning. Some presidents don’t.
A new Gallup Poll found that 74 percent of Americans believe President Kennedy will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president, making him the country’s most beloved modern leader. If Kennedy were here today, what advice do you think he would have for President Obama, whose approval rating is about 40 percent?
President Kennedy was very much involved in the content of the legislation that he proposed to Congress. For example, it was Kennedy who ultimately decided to include the public accommodations section in the civil rights bill that he crafted and that was enacted by Congress in 1964, after his death. This proved to be a key provision in the bill and a tribute to Kennedy’s personal leadership.
Kennedy might advise Obama to involve himself much more deeply in the legislative process than he has thus far. Both Democrats and Republicans have described Obama as “standoffish” in his relations with Congress and not much interested in the substance of legislation. In short, Obama allows Congress to take care of legislative “details.” President Kennedy might suggest Obama become more deeply involved in the content of important legislative proposals and know precisely what it is that he is endorsing and why he is endorsing it. To praise a bill effusively—and yet not know some of its key features—is an invitation to political turmoil, as President Obama now knows. A few pertinent words from Kennedy in 2009 may have been very helpful to Obama. Even in 2013, they may still be illuminating.
President Kennedy is the subject of some 40,000 books. What new insight will your book in progress on Kennedy’s legacy shed on his public and private life?
At this point, my research still isn’t complete. I can say, however, that I don’t agree with some leading authors on various positions that they’ve taken in books and articles. For example, I will write that historian Robert Dallek was simply incorrect when he wrote about various aspects of Kennedy’s health—an important topic in terms of a president who was so ill. In addition, I think that Kennedy had a far better record on civil rights than many authors ascribe to him. Generally speaking, he has been widely denigrated as a civil rights leader; I think there is a far more positive side to the civil rights “story.”
Even though I expect that my research will support the widespread conclusion that the Bay of Pigs was not only a nightmare for the United States but a severe blow to Kennedy’s credentials as the nation’s chief diplomat, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to conclude, after additional research, that Kennedy deserves more kudos as a legislative leader than he has traditionally received. So there will be both agreements with conventional wisdom and very strong disagreements. Otherwise, why bother to write a book that simply mirrors what previous writers have already written?