John F. Kennedy is an American paradox. His smiling visage was what New Dealers and their protegees imagined themselves to be. But Kennedy also reflected the corruption and dishonesty behind the attractive facade and earnestly stated intentions. Like his successor Richard Nixon, Kennedy mixed idealism and pragmatism well. Both were effective presidents. But neither could escape the temptations of shooting a few rounds of dirty pool.
Kennedy was the perfect convergence of image, style, and accomplishment. He was a genuine war hero, served respectably in the US Senate, and seemingly outpaced the shadow surrounding his bootlegger, Nazi sympathizing father.
The campaign of 1960 should historically bury John F. Kennedy's legacy in the same grave as Richard Nixon. Falsely campaigning in the general election on the missile gap perpetuated a serious fraud on the voters. Kennedy knew, via national security estimate provided as a courtesy, that the US was comfortably ahead of the Soviet Union in weaponry. Yet he played on fears stoked by the Soviets that they had reached parity. Nixon could not refute the claims without breaking national security laws. His silence on the issue cost him.
But if Kennedy had campaigned honestly, would he have even won nomination?
Justice Allen Loughry of the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals, penned a dissertation at American University that covered political scandals from 1960 until the 1990s. The book published from it, Don't Buy Another Vote, I Won't Pay For a Landslide comes from Kennedy's glib reaction to accusations of cheating during that year.
Loughry's work draws from sources such as former political boss Raymond Chafin's Just Good Politics, among others. It describes in detail how Kennedy campaign money appeared in southern West Virginia counties. Once this money appeared, bosses supporting Hubert Humphreys overnight switched to Kennedy. In those days, the bosses and their slate always won the day. They had many loaves and fishes on the State Road Commission and public school system to distribute among helpful supporters.
And Ted Kennedy himself was in charge of Southern West Virginia, although no one has ever directly accused him of malfeasance.
Kennedy beat Nixon by a whisker in 1960.
Conservatives like to argue that Kennedy was not an effective president. Setting aside one of the most corrupt presidential campaigns ever for now, did Kennedy govern effectively?
He did. Kennedy understood that a strong national economy dovetailed into higher levels of respect for America around the globe, enhancing national security. He also understood 15 years before Laffer drew his famous curve that lower taxes spurred economic growth.
That being said, he combined lower taxes with increasing domestic spending. Chaffin actually demands the credit for giving Kennedy the idea about food stamps, but this could be a reach. Domestic spending on welfare and development programs expanded, along with defense. Kennedy wanted flexible response options, so his administration ratcheted up spending on weapons systems.
In foreign policy Kennedy was aggressively, maybe even recklessly interventionist in his thinking. In 1961, he tried to convince his military leadership of the wisdom in deploying troops into Laos to fight Communist rebels. This belies the liberal fairy tale that Kennedy would have avoided Vietnam.
In honesty, he may have torpedoed our main chance at victory by approving the assassination of South Vietnamese president Diem. Imperfect as Diem was, that was a truly Roman Empire-esque action against an allied head of state.
The Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco does lay at Kennedy's door. He was misinformed and inexperienced, but that was his fault. Kennedy gets blamed for the Berlin Wall going up, but short of war no one could have stopped that. The "ich bin ein Berliner" speech may have been awkward Deutsch, but Germans understood and remain thankful.
Kennedy's signature move represented leadership at its best. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy listened to advice from the president he abused through much of 1960, Dwight Eisenhower. He listened to his advisers as a group rather than one on one, learning lessons from their disputes. Kennedy preserved American respect and strength without firing a shot. He deserves tremendous credit for that.
Kennedy did make powerful moves in the service of civil rights. He helped to rekindle J. Edgar Hoover's old hatred of the terrorist Ku Klux Klan. Attorney General Robert Kennedy allowed Hoover to open up a bag of tricks on the Klan reminiscent of the Czarist Okhrana, plus adding a few of his own. Whether or not one agrees that the tactics were justified, they worked. Under Kennedy's presidency, Hoover broke the Klan.
The Civil Rights Act, however, would not pass in its most effective form until the chief executive behind it spoke with a Texas accent.
Kennedy deserves credit for some notable achievements and blame for policy missteps. Overall, he served as an active, dynamic, and effective president with vision and ability, same as Nixon.
Both men, on the other hand, had crimes committed on their behalf that struck at the heart of the American democratic system. In Watergate, staff broke into a locked office to spirit away secret campaign files (this also happened to Republicans in Washington state in 2008.) Kennedy's 1960 campaign suborned Democratic Party officials at the local level in West Virginia to steal primary support.
It wasn't "just good politics." It was a crime. And few people outside of West Virginia have any interets in adding this to Kennedy's legacy.
The passage of time mellows the most intense of hatreds and even some hero-worshiping.
We owe it to history to start getting the story straight on President Kennedy.