The build-up to the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination has produced renewed interest in the 35th president. PBS showed an interesting two-part series on him last week, and John Kerry believes that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone.
I’ll confess that I’ve never thought much of Kennedy as president, which, according to a recent poll, seems to put me out of step with many Americans. Unfortunately, this NYT poll doesn’t include a link to the entire poll results, but I wasn’t surprised by the results.* Kennedy placed fourth in the poll, behind Reagan, Lincoln, and Clinton. Kennedy has historically fared well in these polls of the general American public, which probably surprises no one.
Kennedy’s assassination cast an air of mystique around his image that resonates today. Many Americans who remember where they were when he was killed remain enamored of him, and they seem to have passed down their admiration to my generation. With no Kennedy attracting much attention nowadays, I wonder if we are starting to see a more realistic evaluation of JFK.
In case you are interested, here’s how scholars have ranked Kennedy.
Sienna College Research Institute
Institute for the Study of the Americas (London)
You can find a number of other poll results on Wikipedia. Of those listed, the lowest ranking recorded for Kennedy is 18th (Wall Street Journal, 2000). I still think he’s been rated too highly, but at least I’ve admitted my bias.
* Kennedy’s ranking is inexplicable, but so are Clinton’s and Reagan’s, neither of whom belong in the top four.
6 thoughts on “John F. Kennedy and Presidential Polling Popularity”
I think JFK was probably an above average president, which along with his social impact and tragic death has been catapulted up the rankings. It is hard to judge Cold War presidents based on foreign policy because the absence of a catastrophic event is their main success. I wouldn’t know how to quantify the avoidance of nuclear holocaust with the winning of the Civil War. One clearly has demonstrable cause and effect while the other might be more influenced by chance. Also I have read that many of LBJ’s social programs stemmed from JFK (Medicare), which should partly reflect on K’s legacy. Also I wasn’t alive during Kennedy’s time so this is based off of what I’ve read.
I would argue that there were demonstrable issues with JFK’s foreign policy. Yes, he inherited Vietnam and Cuba from Eisenhower, but at some point, he was responsible for what happened under his administration. Some historians, and many Americans, seem to want to give him a pass because he was murdered.
I’m not sure he ranks in the top 4 of the 20th Century.
I would put Wilson, FDR, TR, LBJ, Truman, and Reagan ahead of him for sure. Ike and Nixon might also be ahead of him for me. (If only Nixon hadn’t been a paranoid narcissist!)
Nixon was a great politician who will never be seen as such. He was on the national Republican ticket 5 times. That has to be some kind of record.
I’m too young to remember Kennedy, but I can’t wait to get to his biographies (by Dallek, Goodwin, Reeves and others) so I can assess for myself whether he actions as president really should place him ahead of Madison, LBJ, Reagan, etc. I admit I’m skeptical…