Robert Dallek: Why Do We Admire a President Who Did So Little?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert Dallek is the author of "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963." His latest book is "The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.]

Every year since 1990, the Gallup poll has asked Americans to assess all the presidents since John F. Kennedy. And every year, Kennedy comes out on top. In the most recent survey measuring the popularity of the nine presidents since JFK, 85 percent said they approved of Kennedy’s leadership; Ronald Reagan was second with a 74 percent rating. Predictably, Richard Nixon came last with only 29 percent; even George W. Bush, who rivaled Nixon for the dubious distinction of least popular, commanded 47 percent approval. And poor Lyndon Johnson, who did more to change the country for the better with his civil rights, Medicare and aid to education laws than any president since Franklin Roosevelt but who remains burdened by Vietnam, stood just ahead of Bush with 49 percent.

The great mystery is why Kennedy, who served for only a thousand days and failed to persuade the Congress to pass any of his major domestic initiatives on taxes, civil rights, health insurance for seniors, and aid to education, enjoys such extraordinary public regard. True, his brilliant handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved the greatest Soviet-American confrontation threatening a nuclear disaster in the 45-year history of the Cold War. Moreover, his negotiation of a nuclear test ban in the atmosphere was a giant step forward in limiting the arms race. But his failed assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs and his expansion of the U.S. military’s advisory role in Vietnam and the toppling of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, which many see as the preludes to Johnson’s war, add to the puzzle about Kennedy’s high standing....

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Patrick Murray - 1/21/2011

JFK changed the invasion beaches to one that led into a swamp. And the CIA forgot that Cuba was in a different time zone from its bases in Central America so the Navy jets with their insignia painted over with gray paint never met the National Guard B-24s. I do not say this to argue for invading Cuba. It is a sign of how badly governed the United States actually is and why we should not being doing this crap because we suck at it. Then JFK blamed it on the Eisenhower Administration.