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Kennedy, the slightly better than average president

Liberals speak of Camelot, and point to the idealistic rhetoric of his great speeches. My favourite is the line that goes "We do not do these things because they are easy but because they are hard," when announcing his intention to put a man on the moon.

 

Conservatives strike back with plentiful examples of his immorality, including links to the mob and sexual appetites. Yet the reality of JFK's administration is perhaps a little more ordinary. His was a presidency like many others, not without mistakes but with some little success along the way. Historian Mark White has it right when he notes in this week' s BBC History Magazine podcast that Kennedy was excellent in crisis management. The Cuban Missile Crisis is exhibit A, in which the 35th president stood up to his belligerent generals. He realised the folly of World War 3, noting that "We all breathe the same air," accentuated as it was in his terrific Bostonian accent.

 

Yet, according to White Kennedy had little strategic vision. Rather than ending the Cold War, he escalated American involvement in Vietnam, boosted military arms spending that resulted in a dangerous nuclear race with Russia, and had no credible plan on how to deal with Castro in Cuba, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Perhaps his greatest legacy is the Civil Rights Act, which he never lived to steer through. Indeed, his death may have galvanised this troubled bill through a hostile Congress that only his successor, President Johnson, knew how to tame.

 

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