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Francis Russell

March 2023
1min read

Author of President Makers from Mark Hanna to Joseph P. Kennedy

Most overrated:

John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected President, in his shocking death became a legend, a myth of enduring youth, a face on a silver coin, an inextinguishable flame. The image persists of a lost young man of wit and grace and charm in a vanished Camelot.

Yet what was he really? An ordinary man, in private life a crude philanderer, with no great love of the arts or of learning. What were the accomplishments of his thousand days? Very little, I think. Rather than accomplishments there were grim landmarks: the Bay of Pigs; the Berlin Wall, which Kennedy just let happen; the Cuban missile crisis, which ended by guaranteeing Castro’s position; the Vietnam War.

Most underrated:

No getting around it. There is a repellent quality to Richard Nixon, to his very physical appearance. His features antagonize. His voice grates. From his released tapes emerges a vulgarity of speech, a coarseness that seems ingrained. He lied to the American people, and in the end he destroyed himself, the first President ever to be forced from office. One thinks of the bathos of his Checkers speech, of the subsidized grandeur of his California and Florida ersatz White Houses, of the Ruritanian uniforms of his presidential guards. All that—and yet, and yet.

The 1960 election was so close that neutral political observers believe an honest count might well have given the election to Nixon. But an honest count in Illinois and Texas was more than political human nature could ask for. The night before the election Chicago’s Boss Daley telephoned Father Joe Kennedy to tell him he had nothing to worry about in Illinois. In Texas Lyndon Johnson, an old hand at ballot juggling, saw to it that a hundred thousand Republican votes were thrown out, more than enough to have given the state to Nixon. Nixon knew he had been swindled, but to his credit he did not protest the election, as he might well have done, merely saying that he did not want to subject the country to another Hayes-Tilden controversy.

Nixon did not end the Vietnam War, though but for Watergate he might have succeeded in some sort of compromise. By mining Haiphong Harbor and bombing Hanoi, he brought the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, an action that Johnson hesitated to take five years earlier and that might then have ended that misadventure.

Nixon’s great and enduring achievement was, of course, his establishment of relations with Communist China, an act that has changed the course of history. When Nixon’s face, somewhat retouched, appears on a postage stamp, when his gaucheries are forgotten and Watergate is no more than a footnote, his recognition of China will be his monument.

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