Unfulfilled Promise

John F. Kennedy; An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

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There are few more fitting subjects in the history of the American Presidency than John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  As a politician and as a person, he inspired a level of devotion, if not faith that raises the spirits of both historians, and more broadly, Americans.  Robert Dallek is one of those who eulogises Kennedy, while drawing a distinct line at the President he might have been.

There was lots to admire, even like, about Kennedy.  He was, in truth, a skilful President.  This extended to more than a careful management of his image to his regular appearances on television and radio.  He spoke to the Nation, and he did so in order to speak honestly.

In spite of his youth, and inexperience, Kennedy saw as well, if not better than many of his contemporaries what the great foreign policy issues of the day were.

Admittedly, he allowed himself to be misled into the Bay of the Pigs debacle – which is not a mitigation of his responsibility, since to balance the competing desires of different factions with the art of the possible is the main occupation of the politician – and compounded it by withdrawing a substantial amount of air cover for the Cuban rebels.  Nor was his administration short of folly in the aftermath of that invasion.  His brother, Bobby, was obsessed with having Castro assassinated (a policy which he tragically came to believe was responsible for his JFK’s assassination as a reprisal).

From that mistake, however, a newfound confidence was born.  Convinced, as he had always suspected, that the military advisors who were meant to serve him served their own perverse interests better, he resumed a great weight of responsibility for deciding American foreign policy.

Having been consistently bested by Khrushchev, he bravely and responsibly refused to submit when Cuba was again the source of discord and the USSR a genuine threat to the American mainland, and won a decisive advantage for the USA by ensuring that the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey would remain secret.  Dallek also gives evidence that his weighing up of the two contrary opinions on Vietnam would have resulted in his holding back American forces from a war they were doomed to lose.

This should not be taken to mean that Kennedy was a great President.  The starting, and ending point of Dallek’s book is that greatness was coming to Kennedy.  There is no guarantee that that is true.  Dallek rightly points out that the six pillars upon which Kennedy’s legacy would have been based – a tax cut to boost the economy, federal aid to education, Medicare, a Civil Rights Bill, a Housing Department and an assault on poverty – were all achieved during the Presidency of Kennedy’s Vice-President, Lyndon B Johnson.

Part of the reason was, as Dallek says, that the composition of Congress was against Kennedy.  And he was certainly progressing.  When he first came to office, Kennedy did not believe that it was his role to champion a Civil Rights Bill from his position as President.  Moreover, he felt that it would directly contradict his desire for the US to lead into a new era of international peace.  He was, in some ways cowardly and was ultimately wrong to think as he did (which, to his credit, he recognised).  But it was to LBJ, a man of much deeper feeling on the issue, and much greater cunning and knowledge of the legislature that the decisive Act, and much else, was left.  It is therefore difficult to tell whether Kennedy was unfinished, or unfulfilled.

Kennedy was quite capable of mastering a brief, and was imaginative in his response to the major questions of the day.  Yet he lost most of his opportunities, his Union Bill while in the Senate, and the Test Ban Treaty in the wake of the Missile Crisis.  In doing so he provided a salutary lesson for American Presidents – that control of the Oval Office is never enough.  It is a lesson that Barack Obama, as he tries to squeeze Health Care out of a Congress that has so far produced two apparently irreconcilable Bills, will rapidly be learning.  Obama may have some tricks up his sleeve, but he should be wary that as in Kennedy’s case, television appearances and moving speeches might not be enough.

However, I think that the last word should go to Kennedy, or at least be about him.  Or rather, as the late, great Alistair Cooke described;

the feeling, which has little to do with [Americans’] political loyalties, that they have lost a brother, the bright young brother you are proud of, the one who went far and mingled with the great, and had no side, no pomp, and in the worst moments (the Bay of Pigs) took all the blame, and in the best (the Cuban crisis) had the best sort of courage, which is the courage to face the worst and take a quiet stand.

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