John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later

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Schlesinger and Sorensen also emphasized that, relative to other Presidents, Kennedy operated in inhospitable circumstances. Unlike predecessors who could claim overwhelming mandates for change, Kennedy had won the narrowest victory of any presidential candidate in this century, a reality he always carried with him. A short time before his death he commented on a White House aide whom the press had described as coruscatingly brilliant. “Those guys should never forget, 50,000 votes the other way and we’d all be coruscatingly stupid.” The same election that had given him his razor-thin victory had added twenty-one Republicans to the House and one to the Senate; he had to contend with a bipartisan conservative coalition that had balked most efforts at reform for almost a quarter-century. In 1962 alone that coalition defeated Medicare, aid to colleges, a civil rights measure, and a proposal for a new department on urban affairs. (Kennedy’s critics conceded these handicaps but said he was too easily awed by them, too unwilling to risk his prestige. “In his relations with Congress,” the constitutional scholar John Roche has written, “Kennedy suffered from what Søren Kierkegaard once called the ‘paralysis of knowledge.’ He was temperamentally incapable of leading lost causes, or causes which seemed lost in a rational appraisal of the odds.”) Not only Schlesinger and Sorensen but other Kennedy champions, both in his White House years and subsequently, pointed out that there was not in the early sixties a national mood of urgency of the sort induced by the Great Depression. “There is evidence on every hand,” wrote the Washington commentator Richard Rovere in 1963, “that the country fails to share Mr. Kennedy’s alarm over the disorders he would like to remedy. ” Critics said that the apathy resulted in good part from the President’s failure to arouse the people, but at the time the essayist Andrew Hacker did not see much point “in exhorting a self-satisfied public to a state of mind it does not care to embrace.”

 
 
 

Lastly Kennedy’s defenders argued that the President was just beginning to come into his own in his third year in office and that his great period of accomplishment lay just ahead. “My own feeling, and it can be only a feeling,” reflected Clinton Rossiter, a political scientist, “is that his victories, which might have elevated him to historical greatness, were just over the next rise.” Some implied that the promised land would have been occupied before Kennedy’s term was out. More common is the judgment that Kennedy was building a firm base in his first term; that he would have overwhelmed Barry Goldwater in 1964, as Johnson did; and that his big triumphs would have come in his second term. “How, then,” Sorensen asked, “could it be that he should be taken from us when he stood on the very threshold of the promised land to which he had led us?”

NOT CONTENT WITH citing this range of extenuating circumstances, Kennedy’s admirers claimed that the President, despite his brief tenure, had compiled a solid record of accomplishment. For instance, in his massive biography, Kennedy, published in 1965, Sorensen provided a detailed appendix cataloging the legislative achievements of the Eighty-sixth and Eighty-seventh Congresses. The fifteen items and twenty-one subtopics ranged from trade expansion to public works, from mental retardation to the Communications Satellite Act. To this list of accomplishments he might have added any number of executive actions—the showdowns with Governors Ross Barnett in Mississippi and George Wallace in Alabama, the steel-price confrontation with the U.S. Steel board chairman Roger Blough, and a cluster of excellent appointments like those of Wilbur Cohen as assistant secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and Walter Heller as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He also appointed some first-rate ambassadors to nations of the Third World. That same year, Schlesinger, in A Thousand Days, summed up the case for Kennedy’s historical significance: “Yet he had accomplished so much: the new hope for peace on earth, the elimination of nuclear testing in the atmosphere and the abolition of nuclear diplomacy, the new policies toward Latin America and the third world, the reordering of American defense, the emancipation of the American Negro, the revolution in national economic policy, the concern for poverty, the stimulus to the arts, the fight for reason against extremism and mythology.”

Schlesinger’s categories set the agenda for much of the subsequent controversy, not least his claim that Kennedy brought about the “emancipation of the American Negro. ” A great many writers, notably Howard Zinn and Victor Navasky, sharply challenged this contention. They pointed out that Kennedy moved more slowly than a tortoise in his first two years in office. He refused to propose civil rights legislation, named Southern white racists to the federal bench, and tried to stifle protest. Even in 1963, it has been said, he acted only when he was compelled to, and still too timidly.