WIUM Tristates Public Radio

JFK's Place Among America's Presidents

Feb 19, 2017

Presidents' Day is celebrated in the U.S. to honor the people who've held the nation's highest public office.  Tri States Public Radio talked to a couple historians about the 35th president, Democrat John F. Kennedy, because this year marks the centennial of Kennedy's birth (May 29, 1917).

Both historians said Kennedy was popular with the public but his accomplishments do not place him among the nation's greatest leaders.

“Kennedy was middle of the pack at best. During his presidency he did not pass most of his substantial domestic legislation (and) his foreign policy was a series of crises culminating in coming close to a nuclear war,” said Dr. Richard Filipink, Professor of History at Western Illinois University.  Filipink said Kennedy often pointed ahead to the 1964 election, believing that a convincing victory would give him a mandate to implement more of his agenda during a second term.

Dr. Virginia Boynton, who is also a Professor of History at WIU, agreed that Kennedy did not accomplish much during his short time in office.

“He was making some moves towards perhaps becoming a little more outspoken on things like civil rights shortly before he was assassinated.  So the great unknown is what would have happened if he hadn’t been (assassinated),” said Boynton.

Filipink and Boynton both said one of Kennedy's top achievements was the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned nations from testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space.

And Boynton said that while Kennedy deserves some blame for causing the Cuban Missile Crisis, he also deserves praise for how he resolved it. 

"It was defused in way that I'm not sure all people in the White House would necessarily have handled in the same way," Boynton said.

Filipink said Kennedy handled the crisis "the right way" by not turning it into a military conflict. 

"It is fair to say that Kennedy succeeded in keeping his military advisers -- who desperately wanted to bomb or invade Cuba -- at bay and settled it peacefully," Filipink said.

But he pointed out that as part of the agreement to resolve the stand-off, Kennedy secretly removed U.S. missiles from Turkey. Filipink said instead of telling Americans about that part of the deal, Kennedy publicly trumpeted how he faced down the Soviets.

Filipink said Kennedy was not a strong legislator before becoming president and he did not work well with Congress.  But he said JFK was popular with the public due to his immense personal charm and magnetism.  

"His Gallup poll numbers never drop out of the mid-50's. They're in the 60's when he's assassinated," said Filipink.

Kennedy is the youngest person ever elected president and he promoted an image of youthful vigor.  But JFK suffered from many ailments -- far more than were made public during his presidency.

Boynton said, "He had physical disabilities that he contended with his entire life. I think the perception of youthful vigor was enhanced by his young family."

One of Kennedy's ailments was Addison's disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands. Filipink said the medicine Kennedy took to treat that condition caused swings in his energy levels and could have affected his judgment at times.

Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, narrowly edging Nixon in the popular vote by less than 113,000 and winning the Electoral College, 303 to 219 (with Harry F. Byrd picking up 15 Electoral College votes).  

Kennedy was the first president born in the 20th Century and is the only Roman Catholic elected president.

The Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is located in Boston.