The media coverage of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination has overwhelmed the American public, with books, documentaries, made-for-television dramas and journalistic memorials.
“Many of these specials, and there are dozens, are as preoccupied with the images and bereavement of baby boomers as they are with the slain president,” Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times wrote recently.
I couldn’t agree more. We baby boomers like to revel in our story. Nearly all of us remember precisely where we were when we got the news. But more and more Americans — those born after 1963, which is generally considered the last birth year of the baby boomer generation — have little interest in the Kennedy legacy. Most of this exhaustive media coverage failed to note Kennedy was a mediocre president. His record of less than three years provides little support for his place in many polls as one of the best presidents in history. A recent survey ranked Kennedy as the most popular president in the past 50 years.
Within a month after Kennedy’s assassination, his widow, Jacqueline, started to sculpt the myth in cooperation with author Theodore White, who wrote a glowing article in Life magazine comparing the Kennedy administration with the Camelot of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
White wrote that the Kennedy presidency represented “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”
But let’s look at the record. For the most part, his domestic agenda in “the New Frontier” provided the underpinning of liberal policies from food stamps to expanded unemployment benefits that still burden the country. However, he did cut business taxes in 1962, launching a significant economic boom.
In April 1961, his failure to provide air support for the Cuban exile army at the Bay of Pigs undermined any possibility of ousting Fidel Castro and left more than 100 CIA-trained forces dead.
The lack of intelligence about the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, separating East and West Germany, provided an opportunity for Kennedy to stand fast with the people of Berlin in a famous speech. But it took nearly 30 years before the wall came down.
A further lack of intelligence brought the country to the brink of a nuclear war when the Soviet Union installed missiles in Cuba. Kennedy got lucky when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down in October 1963. Another Soviet leader may not have blinked.
Kennedy increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 700 advisers to more than 15,000. His administration’s support for a coup led to the assassination of Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, sending the country into further chaos.
His sexual antics have been well documented, including numerous trysts in the White House, causing the CIA and the FBI to worry that he might have compromised national security.
Let us acknowledge that Kennedy, a young and vibrant man, was not one of the best leaders in the country’s history. Perhaps he could have been a great president, but he led our country down some bad paths that continue to plague the nation. May he rest in peace — along with his inflated legacy that the media and we baby boomers created and cannot put behind us.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51