JFK Centennial: Happy Birthday, Mr. President

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917. What is his legacy?

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963. Credit: http://www.jfklibrary.org

Questions:

1. In what form is he still influencing American politics, society, what do you concider as JFK’s most important legacy?

2. I know it is hard to say, but how would JFK react on President Donald Trump?

Answers:

Marc Selverstone, Associate Professor in Presidential Studies at the Miller Center, Chair of the Center’s Presidential Recordings Program, University of Virginia

1. Kennedy remains an inspirational figure, owing to his rhetoric that called on citizens to contribute to the greater good—and not just in the United States, but around the world. He emphasized the importance of public service, characterizing it as a noble calling, and so many of his constituents responded, whether it was to fight for social justice at home or abroad. That doesn’t mean that he was always a staunch supporter of civil rights or democracy both at home and abroad, as the examples of his reluctance to affirm the moral foundations of the civil rights movement with commensurate policies, or his willingness to work with unsavory regimes around the world testifies. But he emphasized the continuing struggle that was necessary for all to engage in, wanting us to accept difficult challenges with grit and determination. This is precisely the way he described the space project and the objective of going to the Moon. The same would be true in other spheres of life, particularly as the country was moving into, as he called it, the New Frontier, with a set of challenges to realize the promise of American life, to provide equal opportunities and protections for all its citizens. It would be the same for the United States in the world, as Kennedy and his advisers believed, given its perception of living through a particularly dangerous moment in the Cold War.

2. Their characters and instincts would appear to be so different. Kennedy was a fervent believe in the United States as a force for good in the world and the need for collective security; while the Trump team has come around, at least rhetorically, to the value of alliances, the idea was central to Kennedy foreign policy, even if JFK’s policies and actions were more unilateral, such as in Cuba and Vietnam. His choice of personnel reflected the wisdom of the day, as he tapped members of the Democratic and Republican establishments, as well as academia and business, for expertise and guidance. Trump’s team is much less rooted in Washington circles, favoring Wall Street and American (and multinational) big business. Trump has so clearly personalized all disagreements in ways rarely did, and his impulsivity also contrasts with Kennedy’s posture of cool, dispassionate, deliberative governance. Indeed, just consider their approaches to the media: while it appears that the press can’t and couldn’t get enough of either of them, it’s for very different reasons. Of course, journalists were more deferential to politicians in the early 1960s than they are today, for a host of reasons, but it’s no wonder that Kennedy was able to positively cultivate such good press for himself, whereas Trump has made the press not only his own enemy, as Richard Nixon did (and which Nixon alluded to mostly in private, not public), but the enemy of the people, as well.

Diana Carlin, Professor Emerita of Communication, Saint Louis University

1. There are four long-term effects of JFK’s Presidency from my perspective. The first is that he and his administration increased Federal activism in the civil rights movement which helped Lyndon Johnson to get major legislation through Congress. Second, he established the Peace Corps which helped many Americans raise the importance to this day of providing aid in developing nations. Many Peace Corps alumni have gone on to diplomatic careers for the government or in NGOs. Third, he set a goal for the space program to reach the moon. While there are cuts in the program, NAFSA and private space exploration continue with research impacting many aspects of our lives. Finally, Cuba was a major foreign policy issue during JFK’S administration with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba continues to be a political issue with some loosening of embargoes and travel restrictions during the Obama administration. However, the debates continue because the Cuban vote in Florida still matters in presidential politics.

2. It is difficult to know, but JFK understood the importance of a carefully crafted speech and the importance of learning from your mistakes, e.g., the Bay of Pigs. He most likely would be surprised at the type of political rhetoric that exists today in the Trump administration and the general political trend of not admitting mistakes and the need to change one’s approach.

Myra Gutin, Professor of Communication, Rider University

1. In his inaugural address in January 1961, John F. Kennedy spoke the words with which he has become most identified, “Ask not, what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He was the first American president born in the twentieth century, and his dynamism, wit, grace and energy endeared him to generations of Americans.

He was a good, not a great president; he was only in the White House for a little over two years and never lived to see the results of some of his initiatives. Historians are split on his legacy—some are admiring, pointing to his handling of the Cuban Missile crisis, while others note his failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion and his questionable behavior with women. He was the first television president, mastering the emerging medium, and the Peace Corps is his enduring testament to his belief that young people were the best ambassadors for the country.

It would fall to Lyndon Johnson to pass items on the Kennedy legislative agenda, but to this day, 100 years since his birth, 54 years after an assassin’s bullet ended his life in Dallas, Texas, he remains a popular, somewhat mythical figure whose full potential was never realized.

2. It’s difficult to answer this question, but I believe President Kennedy would be put off by Mr. Trump’s treatment of/and lack of respect for the media. Kennedy loved a vibrant media; he made history by televising his press conferences. He believed that Americans needed to be informed.

The two men could not be more different: Kennedy had served in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He had a respect for both bipartisanship and collaboration—and, he had a respect for process.

Gil Troy, Professor of History, McGill University

1. JFK – continues to cast an impressive shadow on American politics — more regarding symbol than substance. In recent movies like about his wife, in constant references to his life, he remains the model president, the Hollywood ideal — despite his real-life deviations from that norm.

2. As for JFK and Trump – while this is all speculative — JFK as a Democrat would start off simply by hating Trump’s party, then hating Trump for giving rich kid, celebrity candidates a bad name, then detesting Trump’s Russia ties — JFK was a big Cold Warrior. Most of all, as one of many, many presidents who tried to use the White House to stretch Americans to be as patriotic, as selfless, as noble as they could be – -Trump’s do-it-to-them before-they-do-it-to-us approach would depress him — and disgust him

Jason Duncan, Professor of History, Aquinas College

1. John F. Kennedy is still widely known today, more than 50 years after his death. I think his most important legacy is that at his best he was an inspiring leader, tapping into the latent idealism of the American people, determined that the United States provide leadership not just in opposing communism, but in helping the peoples of the world to help themselves.

Programs such as the Peace Corps, his leadership on space, his re-thinking of the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union after the Cuban Missile crisis, and his eventual strong support for the Civil Rights movement are among the brightest parts of his legacy.

2. As for President Donald Trump, I would rather not speculate too much. JFK said many times that “politics is a noble profession” and I will leave it at that.

Russell Riley, Associate Professor and Co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program, University of Virginia

1. First, I think JFK’s contribution was mainly in joining style to substance, showing us the importance of intangible factors in judging presidential leadership.  His actual accomplishments over that thousand day span of time were relatively modest, but his place in the American imagination is huge—partly because of his speaking ability, and partly because of his grasp of the importance of aspirations to the American people.  And—it must be added—his image was enhanced over time because of his early death, a tragedy that lives on as a sign of unfulfilled promise.

2. On the second question: I cannot think of any American president who would not be appalled by President Trump.

 

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