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Why the American love affair with John F. Kennedy is winding down
Voters are increasingly critical of Camelot's legacy
The Kennedy mystique is fading.
The Kennedy mystique is fading. (AP)
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espite the many commemorations for the approaching 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it seems the glitzy and tragic myth of Camelot is losing some of its luster. While Kennedy remains one of the most beloved and revered presidents, the American public is starting to be more critical of the 35th president’s legacy.

A recent New York Times poll showed that 10 percent of Americans rank Kennedy as the best president in U.S. history. That’s nothing to sniff at, but it is at least a 50 percent decrease from the number of Americans who ranked him No. 1 in 2000.

Some would argue this decline is only natural the further we get away from his death. In his book The Kennedy Half-Century, Larry Sabato Jr. writes, “Eventually the public relations fog lifts. There are few or no people left with a personal stake in promoting or condemning ex-presidents. In the case of John Kennedy, we are almost at that moment.”

But there is something unique about the insanely high — and until recently, enduring — level of Kennedy’s popularity. While most presidents have enjoyed a bounce in approval since their days in office (Richard Nixon being the one giant postwar exception), a Gallup poll showed that Kennedy’s skyrocketed, to 85 percent in 2010, from 58 percent in his last days. The next closest comparable net gain was of 18 percentage points for Jimmy Carter, which only brought him up to 52 percent approval.

This trend is all the more baffling considering that historians have never held Kennedy in nearly as high esteem as the American public. Alan Brinkley at The Atlantic notes that 13 polls of historians between 1982 and 2011 put him on average as the 12th-best president, and that they generally view him as “a good president, not a great one.”

In fact, the gap between historians and the public suggests that the question may be not why esteem for Kennedy has diminished, but rather how it grew so tremendously in the first place.

One factor is that high school textbooks of the 1960s and 1970s glorified rather than scrutinized Kennedy’s presidency. It wasn’t until later that textbooks rectified those portrayals. As a result, Adam Clymer at the New York Times writes, the image of Kennedy “has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments.”

Over time, even events that are considered Kennedy’s greatest accomplishments have been put in perspective. While a 1968 textbook called the Cuban missile crisis an “American triumph [that] was a tribute to Kennedy’s combination of toughness and restraint,” a 2001 textbook said that “his handling of the crisis courted disaster.”

And in addition to textbooks, journalists and pundits are increasingly comfortable scrutinizing the Kennedy legacy, in stark contrast to the media adoration during Kennedy’s presidency that was only enhanced following his assassination.

After his death, journalists scrambled to write glowing accounts of the president. James MacGregor Burns at the New York Times wrote that "Kennedy had the greatness” of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. According to James Swanson in his End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Life stopped the presses for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Theodore White to meet with Jackie Kennedy, at which point she fed him the reference to the musical Camelot that would cast her husband's presidency as a brief and beautiful royalty for decades.

Now journalists feel no compunction to foster such a glowing legacy. Just this week, Robert J. Samuelson at the Washington Post curtly dismissed the question of whether Kennedy was a great president, writing, “He was somewhere between middling and mediocre.” Richard Winchester at the American Thinker flat-out skewered him as “a ‘Johnny come lately’ to the cause of civil rights,” and stressed that “no major domestic legislation [is] attached to his name.”

Yet despite these increasingly critical attitudes toward JFK, it’s important to remember that the same Times poll still showed that he is considered the fourth-best president. Perhaps Americans are trying to hold on to the myth of Camelot just a little while longer.

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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