This week (Jan. 20) in 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as our 35th president, and his tragic death by assassination notwithstanding, his was a mediocre presidency that, undeservedly, became the stuff of legend — in part because of his assassination.
The myth of “Camelot” is well known; the handsome, inspirational president cut down in his prime, thereby cutting short a good presidency destined for greatness. In truth, however, the Kennedy administration, while long on rhetoric, was short on accomplishments. Indeed, in the latter category, historians point to the establishment of the Peace Corps, the injection of purpose — and funding — into the U.S. space program, and tax cuts that helped stimulate the economy.
Yet on the big issues of the day, Kennedy was either AWOL, or blundered badly. On Civil Rights he was a reluctant president who kept a low profile on an issue that he thought would hurt him politically, especially in the segregationist South, which in 1961 was the core of the Democratic Party. Kennedy played hard to get with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., meeting with them only infrequently and usually surreptitiously, and although he made the perfunctory noises about civil rights legislation, it was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who actually had the muscle, and the moxie, to enact the 1964 Civil Rights legislation into law.
On foreign policy, his chief constitutional duty, Kennedy came across as a hopeless amateur, whose backing of Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster, made worse because Kennedy was too afraid to provide the Cuban exiles with U.S. air cover in the initial stages of the attack, thereby dooming it to failure.
This left a lasting impression on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who considered Kennedy weak and indecisive, an impression confirmed at their meeting in Vienna in 1961 — a meeting Kennedy’s advisors told him was a bad idea — when Khrushchev bullied Kennedy mercilessly on a variety of issues.
That meeting led Khrushchev to believe he could build the Berlin Wall with no reprisals, thereby separating East and West Berlin and dooming millions of East Berliners to subjugation. It also convinced Khrushchev he could install intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off Florida’s coast.
Kennedy acquiesced on the Berlin Wall, but nukes in Cuba were too much, and granting that Kennedy performed well in resolving the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis, it was largely of his own making.
And this does not even take into account his pervasive drug use to mitigate some serious — mostly hidden from the public — medical issues, nor a series of marital infidelities that put Bill Clinton to shame.
He is, in short, on my list of overrated presidents.