By David K. Shipler
History is supposed to have an unerring eye for ultimate accuracy. From the distance of time, historians are expected to act as the final judges, to cut ruthlessly through to the truth. It is fitting to reflect on this now, during a week of renewed mourning for President John F. Kennedy, who was felled in Dallas by an assassin half a century ago.
He and Jackie were dazzling. They tapped Americans’ vestigial yearning for royalty, the excitement of stylish celebrity, and the deep need for optimistic commitment to high purpose. Yet as popular as Kennedy was—his Gallup approval rating averaged 70.1 percent—he was never so widely admired as he became after his death. Indeed, Gallup’s graph of his rating shows a gradual, yearlong downward slope to 58 percent the week before he was killed—still higher than President Obama has enjoyed since the first six months of taking office, but a significant decline nonetheless. It followed a sharp bump up 13 months earlier after JFK faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis. (Presidents’ percentages typically rise after a national security crisis, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s did after Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush’s following 9/11.)
One is tempted to wonder what course the line on that graph would have taken had JFK lived and had been able to win a second term. His re-election would have been no slam-dunk. His trip to Dallas, the epicenter of an extreme right that vilified him, was designed to help him politically in the essential state of Texas. He had barely defeated Richard M. Nixon, in part because he had to run against virulent anti-Catholic bigotry: As absurd as it sounds today, JFK had to reassure voters that he would not take orders from the Pope.
The policy decisions Kennedy would have faced in a second term might have damaged his legacy, depending on how he handled them.
The civil rights movement was far from done, and he had not displayed the kind of passionate commitment to racial equality that came from his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Even with his charming wit, JFK’s political skills may not have been enough to flatter and cajole a reluctant and hard-boiled Congress, as LBJ was able to do, in shepherding into law the ambitious Great Society programs. These now stand as a panoply of advancement, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, food stamps, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. It is heretical to say, but the country might actually be poorer in social benefits had Kennedy lived.
Nor can it be said for sure that the Vietnam disaster, for which Johnson is rightly blamed, would have been avoided. The question now debated is whether JFK would have stepped as boldly into the quagmire there. To guess that no, he would have been clever enough to see the dangers, overlooks the acute anxiety about communist expansion that gripped the United States during the Cold War. It papers over Kennedy’s strident anti-communism and the political risks he would have taken by seeming less than resolute. Twenty-five thousand Americans were already in Vietnam under his administration, and clandestine operations were underway. But would he have sent large contingents of ground troops and bombed North Vietnam? Would he have been sucked into the swamp, or would he have dared to stay out and let South Vietnam fall to the communist North?
George Will argues persuasively that “the conservative” JFK would have been all in, quoting him as stating, two months before he died, that the goal was to “win the war there. . . We are not there to see a war lost.” His brother, Robert, when asked five months after the assassination whether JFK had given any consideration to pulling out, answered an emphatic “No.” It’s worth remembering that LBJ’s chief architect of the war, Robert McNamara, had been named by JFK as Secretary of Defense. So it seems plausible that Vietnam would have been JFK’s nightmare had he lived, and that the public’s current assessment of him would be as unkind as it is of LBJ.
As everyone is tired of hearing by now, all of us who are old enough still remember exactly where we were when we heard the terrible news that Kennedy had been shot. But I also remember exactly where I was when LBJ, consumed by the grinding war, announced that he would not run again. In my mind, the two presidents live on as twin figures of tragedy, the Kennedy of aborted promise and the Johnson whose great domestic achievements were poisoned by deadly wrongdoing overseas.
In the perennial popularity contest of perpetual polling, Kennedy is now ranked highest of any modern president, with 74 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup saying that he will go down in history as outstanding or above average. Only 28 percent give President Obama that honor, and Lyndon Johnson gets just 20 percent of the vote.
That says something about “history.” It seems to be waiting out there to be called upon someday to render its verdict. But “history” is never unanimous. It is written by those with the power to do so. It disagrees with itself. It is malleable, it evolves, and it comprises multiple versions, which compete and drive long-lasting conflicts, as in the dueling historical narratives of Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps history should never be used in the singular, for it usually operates in the plural: histories.
Just now, when we are mourning again for Kennedy, we are giving President Barack Obama record low approval ratings. We tend to chew up our presidents when they are in office, then see them more generously later on.
There is much to criticize in Obama, much more serious than a botched roll-out of a health care Web site. He is not good at Washington politics (hence current nostalgia for LBJ). He is not good at administering a vast federal bureaucracy. He is not persistent or coherent in foreign policy. The violations of civil liberties that he has perpetuated in the name of counter-terrorism will leave the country with a dangerous legacy, not easily corrected in the future.
But many of his instincts are wise, his intellect is keen, his grasp of this immensely diverse country is rare among presidents. His practical idealism, once infectious on the campaign trail, can be inspiring if you listen to an entire speech, not just the sound bites served up by NPR and CNN. If he could be extracted magically from the hateful determination of radical Republicans to destroy him, if he could miraculously recover his political and moral authority to lead, then “history,” waiting out there to judge, might bestow its favor on him, even more than he now deserves.