The Myths of The Kennedys: Part 2
Political Dynasties Are Part of America. The Kennedys Aren’t A Great One — And Actually Compare To One Universally Disliked
There are many myths about American history that we are told as children and that far too many of us cling to when we should well know better. Two are among the most easily disproven: “Anyone can grow up to become President” and “America does not have ruling families the way Europe does.”
The first is very clear with even the most basic understanding of the lives of most of the men who have run for President. The second is obvious to anyone who even takes a cursory look at any of the men or women who have served in political office. I feel fairly confident that a mere glance at the elected officials who have represented any state in the Union in the past fifty years will have their ties to some previous elected official a generation or two generations previous.
Now for those who want to talk how this is fundamentally un-American, I would simply argue our countries obsession with celebrity. How many people have we celebrated in any field- film, music, fashion, television — whose sole accomplishment was basically having a famous parent? We might condemn, we will talk of them as being of privilege and entitlement, but it is merely a precursor for, well, our entire history across the globe. We might not like but it is a fact of life that only fairly recently we’ve become to condemn. Until say the last twenty years or so (and that’s being generous) America has had little problem with the idea of families of privilege being famous for their last name alone.
Such has been the case in America since the founding of the Republic. Two of our first six presidents were from the Adamses, a family that had been among the first American revolutionaries. Nor did it end with John Quincy: his son Charles Francis ran as Vice President on the Free Soil Party in the 1848 Presidential Election, and was a figure in Republican Politics for decades after, considered at one point a front-runner for the 1872 Liberal Republican nomination for President (another story I may get too someday.)
A political dynasty may not be the ideal subject when it comes to discussing American politics and the Presidents but, as with all great politicians, it is dependent on what they manage to accomplish in their lives. For all of the backlash both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt have received in certain circles in recent years, the fact is they were two of the greatest President history, both of whom had to overcome great physical and personal travails, both of whom were considered traitors to the aristocratic classes they were born into because of their fealty to the common man, and both of whom made huge strides for America at a vital time despite being loathed by many in both political parties. FDR may have gotten the country through two of its greatest crises compared to TR who (much to his chagrin) served in a time of peace, but both were significant political figures.
And in contrast to the Kennedys, blood did not presage party loyalty. Eleanor incurred the wrath of her cousins when she waged a dirty campaign against Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. in his campaign for Governor of New York so that Al Smith could win reelection. And when FDR was running for President in 1932, many who were on Theodore’s side of the family actively campaigned for Hoover. Which was fair because in 1912, when Theodore had run as a Bull Moose, Franklin had stayed loyal to Wilson and his own daughter campaigned for Taft.
This is the fundamental problem when we discuss the Kennedys. So much of their luster is based on mythology and tragedy more than actual accomplishment. They don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Roosevelts, and in honesty, the Taft’s and the Rockefellers managed to achieve far more in their time in public office than the Kennedys ever did. If I were to be truly honest, the closest comparison the Kennedys have is truly the Bush family. And there’s actually an argument that the Bushes are superior in terms of actual accomplishment. Before you yell me at for blasphemy, let’s compare both of the families records.
Both the Kennedys and the Bushes came from prominent New England families. Both of the Kennedy and the Bush legacies would not have been possible without the work of the father. Though here, there’s a clear argument that Prescott Bush has a better track record than Joseph Kennedy.
Kennedy Sr, as has been well documented, was connected to organized crime, made much of his family fortune in bootlegging, and while he was a highly involved in Democratic politics, the highest position he ever achieved was Ambassador to England, at which time he argued to FDR against America’s involvement in World War II. Prescott Bush, while not entirely known for his character, did serve with distinction in World War I and served two terms representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate from 1952 to 1962. Prescott was also very liberal, the first national treasurer for Planned Parenthood, and an early supporter of the United Negro College Fund. And for the record, he was in the Senate the same time as Kennedy but unlike JFK had no problem voting to censure Joe McCarthy.
Now to the qualifications of candidate Jack Kennedy in 1960 and candidate George H.W. Bush in 1980. When it came to qualifications, their records are not comparable. Kennedy had been in the House for six years and the Senate for eight. Bush Senior had been in Congress for two terms, served as head of the RNC from 1973 on, had been Ambassador to China and head of the CIA.
Neither one was the most qualified man in the field of potential candidates when they ran, to be sure, but JFK ranked infinitely lower in his field than Bush Senior did in his. The major opposition was Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, Adlai Stevenson (who I will probably discuss in a future article) and Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. Symington, in addition to being a Senator, had been the first Secretary of the Air Force. There’s an argument Kennedy was the least qualified of the group: that was the opinion of many Democratic leaders prior to 1960.
Bush senior was not at the top of his field, either, but it’s worth remembering that his field of candidates were much larger — and more qualified. In addition to Ronald Reagan, his opponents were John Connally, former Governor of Texas, Treasury Secretary under Nixon (and Nixon’s personal choice to succeed him before the Watergate Scandal) Howard Baker, then Senate Minority Leader, known for his role on the Watergate committee, Bob Dole, who at that point had been the head of the RNC during the 1972 campaign and Ford’s running mate in 1976, John Anderson, ten-time Congressman of Illinois, Phil Crane, another Illinois Congressman highly ranked among conservatives and Gerald Ford, who spent most of the 1979 and 1980 campaign considering whether he should jump in. Theodore White, when he ranked these eight candidates, divided them into a ‘big four’ and a ‘little four’. Bush was in the big four, along with Reagan, Connally and Baker — and its worth noting that Bush put up the hardest fight against Reagan all the way through.
And despite his immense disagreement with Reagan on virtually everything (which the conservative wing never trusted him for) Bush still accepted the vice-presidential nomination that summer, even though there’s a very real chance Reagan himself didn’t want him on the ticket. JFK famously came to prominence when he nominated Adlai Stevenson for President at the 1956 Democratic Convention and then tried to become Stevenson’s running mate. Kennedy and his family thought Stevenson was a loser and really didn’t want to run with him that fall, not even going so far as to campaign for him. It was at the end of the day all but about getting set for 1960. Bush was at the end of the day in favor of party loyalty. There’s very little to suggest that the Kennedys were loyal to any cause other than each other, certainly during JFK’s presidential run and the later runs of both of his brothers.
As to individual accomplishment as President (leaving George W. out of it for the moment) George Senior did get a lot done. The Berlin Wall and the Cold War ended on his watch, something that at the end of the day Reagan somehow gets more credit for. For all the ugliness of the Second Gulf War, Bush Senior did end the first quickly and efficiently. And while his legislative achievements are minimal, many of them were completed with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. (Bush is one of three Presidents in the 20th Century to never have his party in control of Congress during his entire term.) After discussion with a fellow historian (I’ll go into more details about who he was and why I trust him in a future article) I have revised my opinion on JFK’s accomplishments while in office and conclude that his legacy was more substantial than I first thought. But I still believe that so much of JFK’s legacy (and arguably the Kennedys as a whole) is based solely on potential. Every other President in history is graded on what he accomplished. JFK is the only president who gets graded more on what he didn’t do — and yet somehow is regarded higher in most historians estimation as a result.
There are other comparisons where the Kennedys are similar and actually worse than the Bushes. The Bushes are known for being ugly campaigners willing to do anything to win. The Kennedys were known for being just as ugly and underhanded in their campaigns (and if we’re being honest, the Bushes never have gone so far to buy voters to come out, something we’re pretty sure the Kennedys did.) The Bushes were loyalty to their family but also to their party. The Kennedys were loyal to family, period. Bush senior had to survive a primary challenge in 1992, but however twisted Pat Buchanan’s point of view, at least he had something passing for a reason. The whole purpose behind Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter was that he didn’t not seem to like Jimmy Carter — he famously couldn’t even come up with a reason why he wanted to be President on national television. And for all the arguments of the quagmire we got into because of W and Iraq, let’s not try to pretend the Kennedys hands are entirely clean when it comes to their involvement in Vietnam. Oliver Stone and his ilk can argue as much as they want about Kennedy being killed because he was going to get us out, but the Pentagon Papers have made it very clear that the Kennedys were very aware of some of the problems in Vietnam and while they might not have actively made it worse, they didn’t make it better. (I’ll have more to say about this in future entries.)
Oh, and remember how many people that George W. and Jeb only got their jobs because of their father? How do you think Bobby and Ted got their first jobs in government? Bobby was appointed Attorney General by his brother and the two of them essentially spent the next three years running the country and shutting other advisors out. That didn’t seem to bother people in subsequent years; hell, most of them thought it made him qualified. And Ted? The seat he held for seven terms was his brothers. And just to make sure no one else could take it, they had the governor appoint Stephen Smith, a Kennedy ally to hold the seat until Ted was old enough to run for it.
There are very few true separations between the Kennedy family and the Bush family, and far more where the Bushes come out ahead. So why do we repudiate one and celebrate the other? Why did so many people condemn George W.’s run for Presidency as being borne out of privilege and legacy and yet every time Bobby or Ted even hinted at running for President was it not only considered right, but a sacred duty? (I believe the term ‘Restoration’ was used for each of them.) Is it because one was a Democratic family and one was Republican? (Although based on the policies of Prescott and George Senior in particular, you could make your argument there were elements of both men that were far more liberal than Jack and Bobby in their runs for public office.) Is it because one family was more photogenic and had a way with rhetoric and the others were not and mangled the syntax? I grant you the utter horror show that followed of W’s Presidency hasn’t helped the legacy of his family one bit, but that’s another point. Both W and JFK were involved in razor thin elections where there was a lot of controversy involving the victor. W’s presidency was condemned as illegitimate from the beginning and only went downhill from there. After the ugliness in November, Democrats never had anything bad to say about JFK. There’s as much hypocrisy here as in everything else.
Why do so many people celebrate the Kennedys and in the same breath condemn the Bushes despite how close they are in so many ways? Again, it has little to do with their accomplishments and more to do with tragedy. And while none can deny the tragedy of the Kennedy family (which started decades before Jack became President) it’s not a substitute for actual accomplishment. In the weeks to come, I will begin to unfold the complicated legacy of the Kennedy campaigns and how bias has led so many to believe the greatness in the Kennedy name has little to do with reality.