Boston Globe Laments JFK Not on Historian’s Most Influential List


By: Warner Todd Huston

Has it at long last begun to occur that John F. Kennedy is fading from the perennial lists of historian’s picks of the “top most influential” historical Americans? If this latest survey of Historians is any indication, it just may be.

And it is about time, too… unless you are a hero worshipping journalist like Peter S. Canellos of the Boston Globe who is calling foul in his piece this morning titled, In pantheon, whither JFK?.

The Atlantic Monthly asked 10 eminent historians to rank the 100 most influential Americans of all time, and Kennedy did not make the cut. Worse, he was named on only two ballots.

Only TWO. Gosh, this is a calamity.

Canellos goes on to reveal others on the list, a list that includes the presidents before and after JFK, and informs us why these historians didn’t put JFK on the list and why the two who did, did so.

But, he also laments that these foolish historians made a huge mistake with a display of near outrage at their malfeasance.

…Now, historians seem ready to believe that Kennedy’s fame was entirely a matter of style — and of grief.

…Still, the historians may have overcorrected

…Kennedy was solidly articulate: He solicited input from a wide range of advisers and outside specialists, deftly debated various approaches, showed respect but not too much deference to the Joint Chiefs, and crafted a combination of military actions and diplomatic thrusts that completely outmaneuvered the Soviets.

…It (the Cuban Missile Crisis) was a textbook example of presidential leadership under perhaps the greatest pressure faced by any chief executive. Johnson and Nixon — and others of Kennedy’s successors — could have learned from it.

Interesting how people such as Canellos love historians when they say Reagan was not the big deal some think, or that George W. Bush is the “worst” president in history.

But don’t go goring THEIR favorite oxen!

Granted this list is pulled from a larger pool of possible entries than the “Greatest President” lists that we usually hear about considering that a president list gives only 43 choices. But for JFK not to have made in into a top 100 list is momentous, indeed. It may just signal a shift in consideration away from the substance free hero worship inculcated in the 60’s generation and toward a more honest portrayal of his somewhat empty presidency.

JFK may count as one of America’s most tragic, unfulfilled potentialities, but he most certainly cannot figure among the country’s greatest individuals. In fact, he was in office for such a short time it is not a fair reading of his accomplishments to rank him as a momentous president at all.

His one major moment of crisis in office, the famed Cuban Missile Crisis, may have displayed some of his elements of leadership — though some claim he gave too much away in the face of Soviet capitulation turning their loss into their gain and our win into a loss — and some mention his visionary thinking on space — though, left to others to complete — but Kennedy really had little lasting impact on the country. He did little about the Cold War, he had no part in the Civil rights battles, nor did he effect much change in foreign policy. He did have some temporary effect on the economy, but his successors quickly wiped it out.

His one true legacy seems to be the mourning the country endured upon his assassination compounded by that of his brother and Martin Luther King’s.

But there is one more enduring mark that Kennedy has left amongst us. His ability to enamor journalists as Cannellos eminently displays. This is an effect that papers over his lack of achievements in comparison to others in his position for those in journalism. Those who still hang on to that gauzy feeling of “Camelot” that the press was so instrumental in mythologizing even as he was still alive, still look to his short time in office as some sort of Golden Age quite regardless of any real achievement.

Mr. Canellos gives us another example that, while the Media may ostensibly imagine themselves too smart for religion, they won’t have their religious icons attacked or besmirched… or left off of historian’s “best of” lists.

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