As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Ross Douthat has brought back a column he wrote two years ago. In it he brilliantly debunked the mystique that has surrounded to the martyred president.
In the time after the assassination it was rightly considered poor form to criticize the martyred president. One does not speak ill of the martyred dead. And yet, politics being what it is, liberal Democrats have happily exploited the Kennedy mystique in order to promote their own agenda.
The Kennedy record has gotten lost in the mystique. Among Americans today he is considered one of the great American presidents. It isn’t even close to the truth.
(For the record, I argued some of these points in my book Saving Face.)
Douthat begins by dismantling the claim that Kennedy’s was a successful presidency:
In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as “incomplete.” The harsher view would deem him a near disaster — ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward.
Naturally, Kennedy’s supporters have done everything in their power to separate their martyred hero from the debacle in Vietnam. In truth, the Vietnam War was the direct consequence of Kennedy policies. After his death it was prosecuted by his people.
Douthat explains it clearly:
Actually, it would be more accurate to describe the Vietnam War as Kennedy’s darkest legacy. His Churchillian rhetoric (“pay any price, bear any burden ...”) provided the war’s rhetorical frame as surely as George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches did for our intervention in Iraq. His slow-motion military escalation established the strategic template that Lyndon Johnson followed so disastrously. And the war’s architects were all Kennedy people: It was the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence, not Oswald’s fatal bullet, that sent so many Americans to die in Indochina.
Third, liberal and leftist commentators have always tried to pin the Kennedy assassination on right wing fanatics. We have read many, many stories suggesting that Dallas in 1963 was a hotbed of right wing hatred of Kennedy.
Douthat debunks the claim:
This connection is the purest fantasy, made particularly ridiculous by the fact that both [Frank] Rich and [Stephen] King acknowledge that Oswald was a leftist — a pro-Castro agitator whose other assassination target was the far-right segregationist Edwin Walker. The idea that an atmosphere of right-wing hate somehow inspired a Marxist radical to murder a famously hawkish cold war president is even more implausible
In his last paragraph Douthat shows that we are still burdened by the Kennedy mystique. It has helped produce a cult to celebrity and has enhanced the credibility of politicians whose charisma far outstripped their qualifications and achievements. No one has dared say a word about it, but what qualifies the current ambassador to Japan for her job beyond her genes?
In Douthat’s words:
This last example suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.
It’s not quite the same thing as saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. But certainly, policies should be judged by the outcomes produced, not by the fine words and high ideals politicians use to sell them.
As William James famously said, the truth is what works.