Hello, viewers, and sorry for the long hiatus.
After watching the movie Chappaquiddick and the CNN documentary The Kennedys, I began to ask myself this question: why is the Kennedy family so revered?
I want to somewhat clarify my question here. When I mean “Kennedy family,” I mean JFK and RFK, the two Kennedys that seem to be political and cultural icons of the 20th century (sorry, Ted, you really weren’t that popular after Chappaquiddick). These two Kennedys are revered as political giants, yet I don’t think their political legacies are as great as the American public seems to think they are.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was an incredibly popular man. Young, good-looking, articulate and part of a wealthy and politically connected family, he swept the nation off its feet. He made powerful friendships with Hollywood stars and was undoubtedly the biggest icon of the early 1960s. His average approval rating for the near three years he was in office was 70.1%, and he is consistently ranked highly on many modern lists of best presidents.
However, when analyzing Kennedy’s body of work in office, his high approval ratings and rankings seem unjustified.
JFK’s New Frontier domestic policies were, for the most part, unsuccessful. The Civil Rights movement heated up during the early 60s, and Kennedy was slow to endorse it because he did not want to lose potential supporters and popularity. The Bay of Pigs invasion ended up being a colossal failure, and two months later, JFK was trounced by Nikita Krushchev at the Vienna Summit. And even though a year later Kennedy helped save the world from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he increasingly fought with members of his staff (particularly Curtis Lemay), and there was permanent tension between him and several military advisors.
Also, JFK’s personal life was subject of much scandal, as allegations of him cheating on his wife plagued him throughout his tenure in office. If you consider how Donald Trump’s or even Bill Clinton’s reputations have been negatively affected by extramarital affairs, and you compare those to JFK’s, it is shocking to see that JFK’s reputation was not more damaged.
While Kennedy did have achievements in office, such as the establishment of the Peace Corps, escalating the Space Race, eventually proposing a Civil Rights Bill, and negotiating an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis, these accomplishments do not warrant the high esteem bestowed on hm.
Without a doubt, JFK’s assassination was an absolute tragedy. But it’s also undoubted that his assassination contributed to his continued popularity to this day. JFK is the “what if” president. The American public wonders just how different the current world would be but for the assassination and what JFK could have achieved had he lived and served out his full term and any subsequent term. He was an immensely famous, larger than life person, who captivated the nation. However, we tend to not hold him accountable for his personal flaws due to his tragic assassination. An analysis of JFK’s presidency is always a reminder of a promising life cut short, and that seems to more favourably skew the perception of his actual achievements in office. In essence, the public tends to adopt an idealised image of JFK and his accomplishments.
Much like JFK, Robert is revered, but his political legacy is just as complex.
Robert “Bobby” Kennedy is often dubbed “the greatest president America never had.”
While there are men who could likewise be described as great presidents America never had (Henry Clay and Adlai Stevenson), it’s interesting to consider how exactly Robert Kennedy got that nickname.
Robert Kennedy was a controversial Attorney General during his brother’s presidency. Even though he was a skilled litigator, Kennedy often misused his powers and directed vast amounts of resources to take down organized crime. He was often irrational in his decision making when dealing with the mob, and when disagreed with, he was hot-headed and impatient. RFK was also one of JFK’s chief advisors during America’s escalation in the Vietnam War, even though Bobby would change his stance much later. And though he supported civil rights, RFK was constantly caught between the struggle of maintaining the Kennedy popularity and dealing with the national civil rights issue. RFK’s biggest mistake was his choice to have the FBI wiretap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr due to suspicions regarding Dr. King’s political agenda and personal life.
Even though circumstances were different, consider what happened to Richard Nixon when the American people found out about his involvement in the wiretapping at the Watergate hotel. Can you imagine what would happen if other senators or government officials were involved in such an invasion of privacy, especially against a revered civil rights leader no less? Bobby got a pass.
Bobby’s messages to end poverty, crime, and his pursuit of equal justice for all have made him an icon for modern liberalism, but there are other men who achieved far more who almost became president. For instance, Henry Clay held the nation together on three separate occasions by writing several compromise bills. And while Robert Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short by assassination, that is no excuse to embellish his achievements and true political legacy.
John and Robert Kennedy were outstanding leaders in the sense that they captured the hearts and minds of both the young and the old. They were part of an elite and accomplished family and were destined for fame and power. Their lives ended far too early by a pair of assassinations, which no doubt contributes to their enduring popularity. However, when objectively and fairly analyzing the true achievements of these men, it would be false to put these two Kennedys on a pedestal.