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JFK Is Still Teflon to Critics, 50 Years Later

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy draws near, many Americans have been rethinking his once sterling reputation.

President John F. Kennedy speaking about the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: AP Images
President John F. Kennedy speaking about the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: AP Images

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John F. Kennedy is still beloved by the American people, even as critics—historians, textbook writers, and elites of all sort—increasingly line up to dismiss his legacy. Recent Gallup polls show that most Americans still rate Kennedy, along with Lincoln and the Roosevelts, as among our greatest presidents.

With the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination arriving on November 22, it’s amazing how powerful Kennedy’s legacy still is with Americans, even as it drops with historians. The Siena College Research Institute has asked 238 presidential scholars to rank presidents since 1982. It dropped JFK from the top ten in 2002 and hasn’t looked back.

Textbook writers have followed the historians’ lead. A 1968 school book described a leader who “revived the idea of America as a young, questing, progressive land, facing the future with confidence and hope.” By 1987, textbooks described the same man’s “rather meager legislative accomplishments.” A textbook from 2009 dismisses Kennedy’s performance during the Cuban missile crisis: “While it seemed like a victory at the time, it left a Communist government intact just miles from the U.S. coastline. The humiliation of giving in also prompted the Soviets to begin the largest peacetime military buildup in history.”

The drumbeat to reevaluate JFK has continued in the lead-up to the anniversary of the president’s death. Feminist author Naomi Wolf writes of how a “recent data show that women, especially, have been losing admiration for him as a leader,” but doesn’t cite what that data is. You can certainly make a good case that women shouldn’t lionize a philanderer like President Kennedy.

But that overlooks the reality of Americans’ enduring love for him. “Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends,” historian Robert Dallek writes. There is no sign he’ll lose credit for that success any time soon.

Has your image of President Kennedy changed over the years? Tell us about it in the comments or in a blog post.

Danny Leake November 24, 2013 at 05:15 PM
I will try this again as I was interrupted by a prompt: I was 11 years old living 5 miles away from Ground Zero if Chicago was hit by a Russian Nuke. I remember that there was a diagram in the Sun-Times that showed the arc of destruction of a 100 Megaton explosion hitting downtown Chicago....I and my little family living in the Henry Horner Projects would have been vaporized....Every day since I have thanked President Kennedy for avoiding war during the crisis and THANKED GOD that LBJ wasn't President because he probably would have listened to General Curtis Lemay, who bombed Hiroshima and by the way thought a Nuclear war was winnable, and civilization as we know it would probably cease to exit. In my personal opinion, JFK was one of the greatest Presidents to walk the Earth and definitely didn't deserve to have his head blown off after saving the World.....revisionist thinking aside.
mary glynn November 24, 2013 at 06:22 PM
JohnF Kennedy would not hav. started a war with Viet Name. How many lives would have been saved how many would not have been wounded and hurt. We would not have been a split country. its a shame people want cut down person. Do you think its the first time a president had a afair. Look at Rooselvelt.. look at what he tried todo look at what he stted and President Johnson finished Civil rights,Space programs many more. why do we have to teardown people. why can't we forget s human misgivings andremember the good. A young man with a young family. Plus the good e hasdone
Phil Collins November 24, 2013 at 10:03 PM
JFK was the first President to be a Trend Setter and Mover and Shaker all rolled into one. He left us all way to soon but he made a difference in the way the world is today and few folks can say they did that to in so short a period of time.
Belle November 24, 2013 at 11:53 PM
So much to think about this young President that passed. He didn't have a good start as a President. Now if he had lived longer, not sure. For he was well aware of the war that was going on in Viet Nam. As it was not a place that US had been involved into. He wanted to do so much for this country and just could not live long enough. Many did not like the man. He came into this with a lot of MONEY....

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