There are many reasons to wish John Kennedy had dodged those rifle shots in Dallas fifty years ago this week. One that’s rarely mentioned is how his martyrdom raised expectations for future presidents that are nearly impossible to meet. Liberals, who put so much faith in federal power, have been particularly reluctant to free themselves of that burden.
Historians and journalists will probably argue forever about what JFK achieved and what he would have accomplished in the remainder of his first term and a probable second one. But most Americans seem to have no doubts. In a new Gallup poll of presidential approval rates, Kennedy scores higher, by far, than any of his successors. Three-quarters of the public rank his time in the White House as “outstanding” or “above average.” Reagan places second in this retrospective competition, with a paltry 61 percent. JFK’s enduring appeal just confirms liberals’ admiration for what David Greenberg has called “his commitment to exercising his power to address social needs, his belief that government could harness expert knowledge to solve problems.”
But if Kennedy had survived and left office in 1969, it’s hard to imagine he would still be so popular today. Racists, southern and northern, would have been no less hostile to the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act, and young African-Americans no less frustrated at the reality of life in urban ghettos. Kennedy might not have sent tens of thousands of ground troops into the jungles and highlands of South Vietnam. But without them, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese would probably have triumphed under his watch; hawks in both parties would never have forgiven him. During the 1960 campaign, Norman Mailer famously entitled his laudatory essay about JFK, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” After eight years marked by a losing war and social upheaval, the dashing president’s shelf life might well have expired.
But the assassination instantly transformed him into a fallen hero, a man whose ideals seem beyond reproach and whose life and image endlessly beguile and titillate. To paraphrase what the critic Greil Marcus once wrote about America, JFK’s reputation is too much for presidents to live up to and too much to escape.
Every Democratic chief executive since Kennedy has urged Americans to think how they can serve their country, as well as how their government can help them. Each has championed the rights of minorities. All have uttered lovely populist phrases about standing up for ordinary citizens—whether Carter’s vow to establish “a government as good as its people,” Clinton’s evocation of those “who work hard and play by the rules,” or Obama’s assertion that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” But none has managed to overcome the abiding cynicism which most Americans have toward the federal state. Their failures make Kennedy seem an even greater figure, the would-be savior cut down just as his sweeping reforms were gathering strength.
Undaunted, liberals keep searching for a heroic candidate who might vanquish the right and steer the nation towards a newer frontier of social equality and cultural tolerance. Bill Clinton, despite his studied centrism, gave them a taste of that in 1992. Howard Dean briefly kindled such hopes in 2004, and Barack Obama set them ablaze four years later. Elizabeth Warren is starting to assume that same role, although her blunt style and single-minded concern with economic policy bear no resemblance to JFK’s witty elegance and focus on the Cold War.
But great presidents are made as much as self-made. In the early 1960s, Kennedy benefitted from events that made liberalism seem the wave of the future. With the aid of Keynesian policies and strong unions, the economy was booming, and the wealth gap was the narrowest in history. In Birmingham, Bull Connor’s decision to attack schoolchildren with snarling dogs and firehoses convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom. Conservatives were just beginning to build a counter-movement, and they still had not rejected leaders who thought Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King, Jr. were agents of a Communist conspiracy. The Vietcong hadn’t yet made enough gains in battle to force the president to choose between withdrawing and escalation. And the nearly all-male press corps tacitly agreed to ignore the fact that JFK’s sex life resembled that of a young Keith Richards on tour. By the end of the decade, all that had changed.
These days, progress toward liberal goals begins more in states and cities than in the White House or Congress. By legalizing same-sex marriage, New Englanders began the growing counter-attack against the homophobia of the evangelical Right and its enablers in the Republican Party. On both coasts, municipalities and states have been boosting the minimum wage for all workers and requiring a living wage on publicly funded projects. Amid the woes of Obamacare, states like California, New York, and Kentucky are demonstrating that the exchanges can work when political officials determine that they should.
If liberals want to do big things for their country, they should cease looking for another JFK and work on altering the political terrain so that the next Democratic president, whomever she or he may be, will feel more pressure to move to the left than to compromise with the right. That would be the best way to honor the man who stated, at his Inaugural, “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.