by Fredrik Logevall
Random House, 792 pp., $40.00
Why, nearly six decades after his murder, do Americans still care so much about and, for the most part, continue to think so highly of John Fitzgerald Kennedy? More than 40,000 works of fiction and nonfiction have been published about his life and death, a steady stream that spiked on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination in 2013. “So few years in the nation’s highest office—yet so many books,” a Washington Post reporter remarked at the time. A poll taken last June by YouGov rated JFK one of the four greatest presidents—tied for third place with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and trailing only Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
That posthumous ranking is a rather remarkable feat. Everyone who can recall where they were when they heard about what happened that Friday afternoon in late November 1963 is now old enough to receive a social security check. Most Americans of any age are probably unaware that Kennedy achieved little of lasting significance during his legendary thousand days in office. Aside from a big tax cut, he signed no major domestic policies into law, and his only enduring diplomatic success was a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests, which he accurately described as merely “a single step” on “a journey of a thousand miles” toward the goal of stopping the race to Armageddon. In contrast, FDR governed the nation through a dozen years scarred by economic calamity and followed by the bloodiest war in history; he signed into law such bills as the Social Security Act and the GI Bill, which remain pillars of the welfare state, while his decision to authorize the Manhattan Project arguably initiated the nuclear age.
Kennedy’s dramatic rhetoric and the elegant beauty of his young family certainly account for some of the posthumous renown. During the 1960 campaign, Norman Mailer wrote that the Democrats
were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably…going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.
But Kennedy actually became more popular and far more consequential dead than alive. In 1960 he carried just under half the popular vote; narrow margins of 2 percent in Texas and two tenths of a percent in Illinois gave him the victory over Richard Nixon in the Electoral College. In office, Kennedy’s approval grew, but he took the fateful trip to Dallas to resolve a bitter conflict among Texas Democrats that he feared could throw the state to the GOP nominee in 1964. The op-ed columnist James Reston wrote in The New York Times, mere days before the president’s death, that “he has touched the intellect of the country but not the heart…he has not made the people feel as he feels, or lifted them beyond their private purposes to see the larger public purposes he has in mind.” After his murder, however, two thirds of Americans recalled having voted for him.