Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Interesting list, but I would have put Kennedy's Berlin Wall speech ahead of Reagan's (his American University and Civil Rights speeches on successive days in June 1963 should also be considered). But nothing can top the two minutes of oratory that Lincoln delivered 150 years ago today.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Was JFK a great president?

Perhaps no president in American history has been more difficult to judge than John F. Kennedy. His presidency will be forever clouded by the martyrdom that marked its premature end, as well as the mystique of Camelot that was largely punctured by the many revelations of his personal shortcomings in the years that followed. In the years after his death, some polls rated him the greatest president in the nation's history; as time has passed, however, he's become as well known -- perhaps better-- for his reckless womanizing than his skills as president. Not surprisingly, his standing has fallen with the American publ

The easy answer to the question of whether he was a great president is that we'll never know. His presidency was too short to reach any definitive conclusion about its success or failure. If he had survived that day in Dallas, the days, months and years that followed would have determined his ultimate legacy.

Still, those 1,000 days counted for something. Here's my assessment:

1) You can't overlook the fact that the first year of his short presidency was, by his own admission, a disaster. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, along with his anemic performance at his summit with Kruschev in Vienna and inability to launch and substantial legislative initiatives, made him seem weak, uncertain and ineffective. That first year has to weigh significantly on his overall grade.

2) His triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis, particularly averting the real possibility of nuclear war, easily overshadows the failures that preceded it. The cool restraint he showed during those 13 days, in the face of mounting pressure by the military and Congress to immediately launch a military campaign that many now believe would have led to a nuclear exchange, can't be overstated. He deftly outmaneuvered Khrushchev, along with many within his own government, and found a way to get the missiles removed without going to war. Other presidents in the same situation, namely Eisenhower or Nixon, quite likely would have acted more rashly, with dire results.
Yet, in judging Kennedy's handling of the crisis, one also needs to judge whether other presidents would have found themselves in that situation to begin with. Did Kennedy's hesitance during the Bay of Pigs and in his summit meeting with Khrushchev give the Soviet leader the illusion that he could get the better of his inexperienced foe in a Cuban showdown? Did Kennedy's obsession with toppling Castro and bellicose rhetoric about ramping up the arms race early in his presidency spur Khrushchev to try to take a stand in Cuba to equal the playing field? We'll never know for sure, but it's quite possible that had Kennedy taken a different approach toward Cuba and the Soviets from the get-go, Khrushchev might never have dared put missiles in Cuba and plunged the world to the brink of nuclear war.

3) With Kennedy, you can't overstate the power of words and the man's ability to inspire others to action. With many presidents, it's difficult to identify even one speech that stands the test of time. With Kennedy,  there seemed to be too many to even count, and many of his greatest ones came in the last months of his life. Their impact was felt years after his death, and perhaps that is the greatest argument for his greatness.

The American University speech that set forth a path toward detente and peace in the Cold War by casting the Soviets not as heartless enemies, but human beings like us. 
June 10, 1963
For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.

The Civil Rights speech that signaled the death knell of Segregation and called on Congress to, at least, finish the work started by Lincoln 100 years earlier.
June 11, 1963
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. 

The Berlin Wall speech that sewed the seeds for German freedom and ultimate victory over communism
June 26, 1963
Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner!"... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!"

These words, more so than any of his deeds, shaped the course of national and world history and made John Kennedy, for all his shortcomings, a great president. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gettysburg and the JFK assassination

This will be a hard week to top for history buffs (and conspiracy theorists), as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on Tuesday and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Friday. The fact the two milestones occur within days of each other gives us a great opportunity to reflect on the meaning they hold for us today and the manner in which they signaled pivotal turning points in our nation's history -- one signaling rebirth and renewed hope, the other a loss of hope in the future and faith in government.
First, the Gettysburg Address, which came in the midst of the darkest chapter in our nation's history, a war that ripped the country apart and cost 600,000 lives. Lincoln's magical words (the only thing he got wrong was the prediction that the world would not long remember what was said that day) on the greatest battlefield of the nation's greatest war signaled to the world that the United States would emerge from this great crisis stronger and more determined than ever to fulfill the promise of equality and freedom laid out by the founding fathers, and made impossible to realize by the scourge of slavery. The nation that had come so close to dying from the cancer of slavery would have a "new birth of freedom" anchored on the promise that "government of the people, by the people and for the people" would endure and, at last, serve all its people. The words Lincoln spoke 150 years ago did indeed represent a turning point in the nation's history, as the Union used the triumph at Gettysburg as a springboard to ultimate victory and the rebirth of the nation. To be sure, the years that followed would be difficult and, at times, marked by significant failure. The nation needed to overcome the tragedy of Lincoln's own assassination and embark on Reconstruction, the failures of which laid the foundation for the new cancer of Segregation, which would persist largely unchecked for 100 years. Government corruption reached new levels under the weak presidents that followed Lincoln, and it wasn't until Theodore Roosevelt's ascent nearly 40 years later that the nation would once again reap the fruits of a strong, effective presidency. But the United States did survive and grow; the industrial revolution would transform it into a world superpower; immigrants from around the globe flocked here for the promise heralded by Lincoln's "new birth of freedom"; and in time it would continue its march toward equality for all its citizens.

The assassination of JFK marked a different type of turning point, as a nation on the cusp of a "new frontier" (in the young president's words) after the dark years of the Great Depression and World War II seemed to again come apart at the seams in the years that followed that tragic day in Dallas. Whatever you think of JFK's accomplishments or failures during his short presidency, he conveyed a sense of vigor, promise and hope that few presidents before or since have possessed. That promise and hope, as well as faith in the power of government that Lincoln had heralded 100 years earlier, largely vanished in the years after JFK's assassination, and has never fully returned. While Lincoln's speech signaled the nation's exit from the terrible quagmire of Civil War, JFK's death set in motion a national quagmire of war, chaos and rebellion that defined the remainder of the decade, marked by a deep distrust and cynicism toward government (fed in part by the various conspiracy theories that surrounded his death). Fifty years later, we are still struggling to recapture the national confidence and optimism that JFK's presidency represented.

Of course, the comparisons are not quite that simple. Just as the years of healing and progress after Lincoln's address included significant setbacks and failures, the years after Kennedy's assassination were marked by some significant accomplishments: Long-overdue Civil Rights legislation; economic prosperity and Medicare; the moon landings. But the sense of where the nation was headed couldn't have been more different. In Lincoln's case, the nation had survived the test to its very survival and was moving inexorably forward, with a belief that there was light at the end of the tunnel of war and its best days lie ahead. Whatever stumbles we encountered along the way couldn't compare to challenge, and grief, of Civil War. In Kennedy's case, the assassination seemed to lead us from the bright possibilities of the New Frontier into the dark tunnel of Vietnam, Watergate and national malaise. Fifty years later, we're still searching for ways to exit that tunnel and rediscover the confidence and optimism that Kennedy's presidency represented.

Next: Was JFK a great president?