I’ve read every major biography written about John F. Kennedy and a couple of minor bios as well. I also went on a jag a while back when I read all of the books on the assassination. Recently several new books on JFK have been published, including Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days. The book is a daily chronicle of the life of the president during that last period of his life, but rather than reading like a dull diary, Clarke weaves a compelling and interesting narrative that actually adds something of value to the historical record of this remarkable man.
Thurston Clarke’s unique contribution to this well-explored sub-genre is the exposition of the impact Kennedy had on people the world over, both in life and in death. The post-November 22 chapter, where the author recounts the world-wide reaction to the assassination, is moving and meaningful. For millions (perhaps billions), John F. Kennedy stood for progress and hope. No leader since JFK has even come close to capturing the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world.
The question Kennedy scholars struggle with is whether or not the spark he kindled was real or wishful thinking. The fact that he spent only three years in office places an unbreakable limit on the number of tangible achievements. Unlike FDR, he was elected by a razor-thin margin and faced a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. I think the achievement argument is a dead-end either way, because sometimes a president can achieve too much. Lyndon Johnson probably passed more legislation than anyone, but a good chunk of it was wasteful legislation.
The reason why people remember and even long for JFK today has nothing to do with his tangible achievements. What people truly miss are two qualities we haven’t seen in a leader since his death.
First, John F. Kennedy was at heart an exceptionally rational human being. Clarke and others have stressed this point, but it is a quality that is often overlooked. His problem-solving style was to look at a problem from as many angles as possible to find the solution that made the most sense. I haven’t heard anything coming out of Washington that has been close to rational lately, and none of his successors had his special combination of a curious intelligence and a rational world-view. Clarke gives repeated examples of Kennedy’s insistence on the use of rational thought in making policy.
Second, Kennedy spoke to people in a way that served to lift their sights, to see the potential in themselves and in the nation. Reagan tried to do that, but his message was contaminated with partisanship and simplistic moralizing. Kennedy was serious about raising America’s game, and this was not all about competitive fire. He believed in excellence and considered it irrational that anyone would want to settle for less. This is a key theme that Clarke writes about with balanced admiration.
There has been a great deal of speculation lately about “What would Kennedy have done had he lived?” Jeff Greenberg has shared his perceptions, but I think Clarke makes a more credible case due to a combination of good research and his ability to connect the dots.
To answer the most common “what if” question, there is no way on earth John F. Kennedy would have escalated the war in Vietnam. To do so would have violated his most sacred precept: it would have been an irrational thing to do. There is ample evidence that he was looking for a way out, and it is likely he would have found one that made sense after the 1964 election. Lyndon Johnson never viewed Vietnam with dispassionate logic—he wanted to show those damned Republicans that he was tough and he wasn’t going to let any picayune country push the USA around. His insecure machismo and refusal to believe that the tricks that worked when he was leading the senate wouldn’t work with Ho Chi Minh led to irrational decisions and a tragic outcome. Clarke makes it clear that during the period immediately preceding his death, JFK consistently resisted pressure from the majority of his advisors to increase American commitment. All of his decisions pointed in the direction of an exit strategy.
The evidence also indicates that there would have likely been an earlier détente with the Soviet Union, and possibly some kind of reconciliation with Castro. Kennedy saw war as the ultimate expression of human irrationality, and he would have continued his push for peace throughout a second term. It is also likely he would have had a vibrant economy going for him in the second term, as the economic boon from his tax cut would have had the intended impact of expanding prosperity instead of being pissed away by the billions in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in poorly thought-out Great Society legislation.
Beyond those issues, it’s impossible to make even an educated guess as to how JFK would have done with five more years. I doubt that it would have all been sunshine and light, because history tells us that most second terms are largely disappointments. We would have avoided an unnecessary war and runaway inflation, but challenges we can’t even imagine might have come to the fore to derail his agenda. Assuming that society had developed along the same lines, I can easily imagine trouble on one front: his native sexism would have found the women’s liberation movement incomprehensible. I have little doubt that he would have continued to experience difficulty with a recalcitrant South in the area of civil rights: Selma would still have taken place; racist governors like Wallaces and Maddox would still have been elected; and Reagan’s thinly disguised racist message would still have found favor with whites in Southern California.
Clarke’s appraisal of JFK’s likely outcome is both fair and limited. Unfortunately he also makes the decision to bring in Kennedy’s sex life into his evaluation of the man’s worth and potential. His argument is that his multiple affairs—especially the one with the alleged East German agent—represented reckless foolhardiness. Perhaps. I find it incredibly distasteful that we strip public figures of any right to privacy, and I couldn’t care less about their sex lives. The expectation of a president to be a moral leader should apply only to the job requirements, not what he or she does in what should be private moments. We can’t ask our leaders to stop being human.
On the flip side, I was elated that Clarke chose not to dip his toe in the dark waters of the assassination and the related conspiracy theories. The only possible reasons for their continued existence are that the American people are stupid, bored or both. There is no question in my mind that Oswald did it because it’s the only explanation that fits the narrative of American history. All of the assassinations and massacres since Kennedy’s date have been perpetrated by mentally imbalanced losers, from James Earl Ray to the Sandy Hook killer to the sick bastard who wreaked havoc at the Washington Navy Yard. Oswald certainly qualified as a mentally imbalanced loser. Conspiracy theories involving the government have to be dismissed out of hand because you’re talking about an organization riddled with incompetence that is unable to keep anything secret. Conspiracy theories involving the Mafia are equally ridiculous because either somebody would have spilled the beans for personal advantage or another mob leader would have used the information against the alleged mastermind.
Our obsession with these theories cheapens the memory of a man who deserves better. Despite his flaws and early stumbles, Clarke clearly demonstrates that John F. Kennedy made a difference in his short time on earth. He should be remembered for his gift of reason and his ability to inspire people to reach for something better than the status quo.
Americans would be much better off if they celebrated his birthday rather than wallow in conspiracy theories every November 22.