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JFK Is Still Teflon to Critics, 50 Years Later

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy draws near, many Americans have been rethinking his once sterling reputation.

President John F. Kennedy speaking about the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: AP Images
President John F. Kennedy speaking about the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: AP Images

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John F. Kennedy is still beloved by the American people, even as critics—historians, textbook writers, and elites of all sort—increasingly line up to dismiss his legacy. Recent Gallup polls show that most Americans still rate Kennedy, along with Lincoln and the Roosevelts, as among our greatest presidents.

With the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination arriving on November 22, it’s amazing how powerful Kennedy’s legacy still is with Americans, even as it drops with historians. The Siena College Research Institute has asked 238 presidential scholars to rank presidents since 1982. It dropped JFK from the top ten in 2002 and hasn’t looked back.

Textbook writers have followed the historians’ lead. A 1968 school book described a leader who “revived the idea of America as a young, questing, progressive land, facing the future with confidence and hope.” By 1987, textbooks described the same man’s “rather meager legislative accomplishments.” A textbook from 2009 dismisses Kennedy’s performance during the Cuban missile crisis: “While it seemed like a victory at the time, it left a Communist government intact just miles from the U.S. coastline. The humiliation of giving in also prompted the Soviets to begin the largest peacetime military buildup in history.”

The drumbeat to reevaluate JFK has continued in the lead-up to the anniversary of the president’s death. Feminist author Naomi Wolf writes of how a “recent data show that women, especially, have been losing admiration for him as a leader,” but doesn’t cite what that data is. You can certainly make a good case that women shouldn’t lionize a philanderer like President Kennedy.

But that overlooks the reality of Americans’ enduring love for him. “Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends,” historian Robert Dallek writes. There is no sign he’ll lose credit for that success any time soon.

Has your image of President Kennedy changed over the years? Tell us about it in the comments or in a blog post.

Mary Jane Scholz November 22, 2013 at 06:08 PM
Though his death was tragic and his leadership outstanding he was not a Catholic president. We all would have been excommunicated had we lived his personal life of adultery. No question about it.

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