November 22, 2013
If you read our Legal History segment regularly, you may remember that just two weeks earlier marked the fifty-third anniversary of President Kennedy’s election in 1960 – meaning, that JFK held office for less than three years before his murder.
Despite his short tenure in office, President Kennedy is clearly still widely remembered fondly fifty years after his death. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, JFK is the highest rated among the American public out of the 11 most recent presidents, receiving a 74% outstanding/above-average rating.
And this isn’t a recent phenomenon. President Kennedy has enjoyed widespread popularity in the years following his death – and during his presidency as well, during which his average approval rating sat at around 70%.
What is the reason for this? Were Kennedy’s legal and political decisions as president particularly well-received?
Actually, JFK took few actions as president of any great consequence, either at the time or looking back in retrospect.
True, his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 likely averted nuclear war (not to mention generated an 11% spike in his approval ratings); but had Kennedy not ordered the previous year’s invasion of Cuba – what later became known as the disastrous “Bay of Pigs Invasion” – Cuban President Fidel Castro may not have considered accepting Soviet missiles – the source of the 1962 Missile Crisis – in the first place.
President Kennedy was also responsible for escalating U.S. presence in the Vietnam War, ordering an increase in the number of helicopters and military personnel deployed to Vietnam. By the time of his death, JFK had increased the number of military personnel in Vietnam to 16,000; when he became president, the number was around 900.
On the home front, JFK was a prominent supporter of the civil rights movement. Yet, despite signing into law the Equal Pay Act – striking a blow at wage sex discrimination – and a variety of public stances and actions in support of civil rights protections, it was President Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, who was responsible for the major civil rights laws that we know today.
Kennedy’s personal life isn’t the source of his widespread popularity either. Although his wife Jacqueline and his children were and continue to be well-known and well-regarded, additional facts have come to light in recent years suggesting extensive philandering by President Kennedy himself.
The answer to the riddle of JFK’s seemingly indomitably strong popularity among the general public is deceptively simple: President Kennedy was and still is so admired because he appeared to so admire the country and its people.
Specifically, Kennedy is widely remembered for his inspirational speeches, filled with ideas of optimism, hope, and patriotism. As the second youngest president in history (after Theodore Roosevelt), JFK’s youthful appearance and energy gave his speeches added vigor.
In short, President Kennedy’s popularity among the American public is due to his raising the confidence and goodwill of the nation itself – and not for what he did as president as much as for what he said.
Ironically, it’s entirely possible that Kennedy’s persistent popularity was cemented by his untimely death, and that if JFK were president for a second term – during a tumultuous time for the country that saw difficult political battles over civil rights at home and a sharp escalation of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War abroad – that his public popularity would be a shadow of its current state.
Nevertheless, events unfolded as they did, and Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago today (the circumstances surrounding which are still subject to significant controversy).
And because of how events took place, Kennedy will likely continue to hold a revered place in the nation’s collective history.