The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s tragic death has brought forth a predictable outpouring of commentary debating his legacy. It is a sign of how the historical debate has shifted since the early days of Camelot, when court chroniclers like Arthur Schlesinger and William Manchester dominated the debate, that today’s leading JFK biographer, Robert Dallek, adopts a somewhat defensive stance in an op-ed about Kennedy’s legacy.
Dallek tries to mount a defense of Kennedy that is premised on might-have-beens–i.e. the claim that, had he lived, JFK would have done more on civil rights and less on Vietnam. Perhaps so, but the evidence for either contention is hardly conclusive, to put it mildly.
In the end Dallek, a good historian, falls back on this: “Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.”
There is little doubt that there is something here–Kennedy did inspire a generation and many felt called to public service because of his example. But the nation also paid a high cost for the youthful charisma that Kennedy brought to the presidency because its flip side was lack of know-how and experience.
Even Kennedy admirers have to admit his many early stumbles, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion (why on earth approve a hare-brained CIA scheme to restage D-Day but without air cover?), the Berlin crisis, and the Vienna summit with Khrushchev where the Soviet leader came away convinced that the new president was weak–a conclusion that led directly to the worst days of the Cold War. To be sure, Kennedy deserved high marks for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he resisted the militaristic advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff that, if adopted, could easily have triggered World War III. (Was this the last time that the top generals were more hawkish than the top civilian policymakers?)
Undoubtedly this was a sign of his growing maturity in office, and yet this chronicle of a president growing into his job bumps up against some inconvenient facts. Namely that in the last months of his life Kennedy was guilty of one of his worst blunders in office–approving the plot to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem when it was obvious that there was no better alternative among all the South Vietnamese generals hungry for his post. Kennedy immediately expressed contrition for Diem’s death but he did not live to see how the removal of South Vietnam’s leader embroiled that country in years of instability and fostered a sense of American ownership of the conflict.
It is little wonder that in succeeding decades, as the luster of Camelot has faded, historians have been elevating Eisenhower and demoting Kennedy among the ranks of presidents–the former getting newfound respect for his steadiness, experience and deft handling of the international scene, all qualities that Kennedy lacked at least at first.
Yet we never seem to learn–we keep choosing charisma over experience. That helps to explain how Clinton beat Bush Sr., how Bush Jr. beat Gore, and how Obama beat McCain. It is remarkable that few would fly in a plane piloted by an inexperienced pilot or consent to surgery from an inexperienced surgeon–yet we regularly turn over the highest and hardest office in the land to newcomers, especially newcomers to the field of international relations which happens to be what the bulk of the presidency is concerned with. The predictable result is more early stumbles, such as Clinton’s failed health-care initiative, the Black Hawk Down disaster, and the failure to intervene early in Bosnia; Bush Jr.’s failure to boost the size of the armed forces, pay attention to the Al Qaeda threat before 9/11, and to do more to prepare for nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan; Obama’s ignoring of the Green Revolution in Iran, his heavy-handed insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze, and other missteps too numerous to mention.