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John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later
Was the murdered President one of our best, a man of “vigor, rationality, and noble vision” or was he “an optical illusion,” “an expensively programmed waxwork”? A noted historian examines the mottled evolution of his reputation.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Today, twenty years afterward, historians are far from reaching a consensus on President Kennedy, but few would be disposed to rank him so highly. The imagery associated with the name Kennedy, so brightly burnished in 1963, has tarnished; to bring to mind the episodes that caused dismay requires only the evocation of certain code words: Onassis, Chappaquiddick, Judith Exner. Kennedy’s reputation has been deflated by what one writer called “a group of late-souring historians known collectively as the revisionists,” and even those who had once been well disposed toward him have had second thoughts. Asked in 1973 whether his view of Kennedy had changed in the past decade, Arthur Link replied: “I should say that I somewhat overrated his abilities, his vision. … As we look back on the years ‘61 to ‘63, what seemed like great events and forward movement don’t seem so great and so forward now.”
In the years since 1963 some writers have carried this criticism to the point of saying that Kennedy’s place in history has altogether vanished. In England, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “Jonn F. Kennedy, it is now coming to be realized, was a nothing-man—an expensively programmed waxwork; a camera-microphone-public relations creation whose career, on examination, turns into a strip cartoon rather than history. ” From a more radical perspective, I. F. Stone said of Kennedy in 1973, “by now he is simply an optical illusion.” Even someone as well disposed toward Kennedy as his former adviser, Richard Neustadt, observed sadly: “He will be just a flicker, forever clouded by the record of his successors. I don’t think history will have much space for John Kennedy.”
Commentators frequently struck this melancholy chord, for Kennedy was perceived to be a man whose career was cut short before he could prove himself. “What was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise,” wrote James Reston. “The heart of the Kennedy legend is what might have been.” Such expressions of sorrow implied that Kennedy had not lived long enough to accomplish much. Even those who spoke well of him often had less to say about what he had achieved than about his “style.”
The contention that Kennedy’s Presidency was inconsequential was disputed by the first authors to write at length about the thousand days—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore Sorensen, each of whom had served on the White House staff. Each was impatient with the emphasis of other writers on Kennedy’s style, for that suggested that he was wanting in substance. “That special Kennedy quality that some called by the superficial name of ‘style’ was in reality his insistence on excellence,” Sorensen maintained. Each claimed, too, that it was unfair to compare Kennedy’s brief tenure with the much longer reign of other Presidents. Schlesinger wrote: “He had had so little time: it was as if Jackson had died before the nullification controversy … as if Lincoln had been killed six months after Gettysburg…”