The JFK fascination

At his death, he had no major legislative accomplishments. His two major proposals — a tax cut to spur the economy and civil rights legislation — languished in Congress. He expanded the Vietnam War, and though some supporters argue he would have reversed that in a second term, presidents are judged on what they did, not what they might have done. His economic policies, symbolized by the proposed tax cut and called the “new economics” (an American Keynesianism), had damaging long-term consequences. They unleashed inflation in the late 1960s and 1970s; and they effectively abolished the commitment to balanced budgets — a loss that still haunts us.

Beyond Vietnam, his foreign-policy track record was lackluster. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster. At a 1961 summit in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy was — by his own admission — cowed. Later, the Berlin Wall went up. He did defuse the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but the crisis may have resulted partly from Khrushchev’s sense that Kennedy could be intimidated.

It is cruel but true that the most consequential moment of Kennedy’s presidency was his assassination: It so filled the country with grief and guilt that, pushed by a masterful legislator, Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the tax cut and civil rights legislation. Moreover, the shift in public opinion enabled Johnson, after his 1964 landslide election, to advance his Great Society agenda: Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and more.