11/22/2013NEW YORK -- Twenty-five years ago, I asked Charles Bartlett, a syndicated columnist, about his old and close friend John F. Kennedy. I have seen his answer published and broadcast dozens of times these past weeks as the nation marks the anniversary of the assassination of our 35th president.
Bartlett's answer: "No one ever knew John Kennedy, not all of him."
Now, 50 years after that tragic Nov. 22 in Dallas, that answer still seems relevant. Of course, that is the way Kennedy wanted it. He was a compartmentalized man with much to hide, comfortable with secrets and lies. He organized his White House as a wagon wheel, with himself as what he called "the vital center," the hub. All his relations along the spokes were bilateral. "It was instinctive at first," he said. "I had different identities, and this was a useful way of expressing each without compromising the others."
Debate about two of those identities has dominated the discussion these days: the energetic president and the cultural icon. Professors and pundits are downgrading President Kennedy's legacy these days, seeing him as an ordinary, even ineffective leader. The people, three-quarters of them, according to polling done this month by the Gallup organization, rate him as the greatest of modern presidents.
Historians and scholars do not rank Kennedy among the great presidents, the transformational presidents. They are upset about "image."
Image counts, I'd say. Some argue that his deeds never matched his words, the words people remember. But words count, too. Kennedy, like Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, understood that words and images are the way to reach millions of people. The president's job is to lead the nation, not manage the government, which is unmanageable. Nobody remembers whether Lincoln balanced the budget.
At the end of his days, Kennedy had his share of historic achievements: He prevented regional wars in Cuba and Germany, and possibly a World War III. He put the government on the side of the minority in the black struggle for civil rights -- no small thing in a democracy, and an act of political courage when his own party, the Democrats, controlled the segregated Southern states and the Congress.
He gambled confidently that the United States could overtake the Soviets' early lead in space exploration, mobilizing the nation by pledging that an American would walk on the moon before the end of the 1960s. And we did it! He negotiated a Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, the first treaty of the nuclear age. He put national health care and immigration reform on the agenda.
Yes, he recklessly, ignorantly, approved an invasion of Cuba in 1961 at a place called the Bay of Pigs and foolishly did the same in signing off on the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam in 1963, leaving the United States stupidly overcommitted in Southeast Asia, backing military dictators distinguished only by their corruption and incompetence.
Kennedy, the first self-selected president, also changed the way we choose our leaders. He ignored and destroyed the structure of party "bosses" and conventions, winning the Democratic nomination by traveling the country, building his own state organizations and winning over his own generation of the national political press -- using family money and the new medium of television, even home movies of his photogenic family and lifestyle. He would not wait his turn, eliminating the older crowd of Lyndon Johnson, Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey.
He was a model of modern ambition. He went after what he wanted and he got it. "The New Generation Offers a Leader" was his first political slogan when he ran for Congress from Boston in 1946. He was inspiring and organizing his generation, the young veterans of World War II, against their elders. He, and later, his beautiful wife, were the role models for the way younger Americans lived their lives. He did not wear hats and soon enough no men did. He wore his hair long and soon we all did. He promoted optimism in the people who elected him.
He was irresistible to millions around the world; the story was classic tragedy -- the young prince struck down. An athlete dying young. It was the stuff of myth and legend, carefully cultivated by his wife, his family and his followers. Legends fade slowly. In that Gallup poll taken this month, the group that most admired Kennedy, 83 percent of them, were the young, men and women from 18 to 29.
So, there is every chance they will be showing and telling this story 50 years from now.