Was JFK One of the Greatest Presidents?

Americans remember the assassinated leader as one of America's best.

President Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy wave from Air Force One as they depart Bogotá, Colombia, after their 1961 tour of South America. (Marion S. Trikosko for USN&WR)
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Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of America's most popular presidents.

While riding in an open motorcade in Dallas, Texas, JFK was fatally shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 when the president was only 46. Despite the fact that he wasn't even in office for three years, JFK is widely believed to be one of the nation's best leaders. A recent Gallup poll found that 74 percent of Americans considered him an "outstanding" president, and in 2010, 85 percent of those surveyed approved of the way he handled his job – giving him the highest retrospective job approval rating of any president measured. Younger Americans, who were not alive when he was actually in office, are also more likely to rate his performance as outstanding.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times argues that JFK was such an important president because he was a "transformative figure" in American history, despite serving such a short term and the fact that landmark civil rights legislation wasn't actually passed while he was in office:

True, much of the adulation for Kennedy during his life and since originated in arguably superficial attributes: his youth, personal attractiveness and sophistication. But his election at age 43 to succeed the 70-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower represented a generational shift in American leadership that was as much a source of popular excitement as Kennedy's individual qualities.

Despite political and personal weaknesses that were widely acknowledged within a few years of his death, Kennedy was a transformative figure, not just a charismatic celebrity. And his violent death rightly is remembered as a rupture in what had seemed an age of optimism and inexorable progress.

[ JFK: 50 Years Later]

Yet others argue that history has been too kind to JFK and has given him more credit than he deserves. In the Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson writes that JFK was in not a great president, and instead fell "somewhere between middling and mediocre":

At his death, he had no major legislative accomplishments. His two major proposals — a tax cut to spur the economy and civil rights legislation — languished in Congress. He expanded the Vietnam War, and though some supporters argue he would have reversed that in a second term, presidents are judged on what they did, not what they might have done. His economic policies, symbolized by the proposed tax cut and called the "new economics" (an American Keynesianism), had damaging long-term consequences. They unleashed inflation in the late 1960s and 1970s; and they effectively abolished the commitment to balanced budgets — a loss that still haunts us.

He argues that when you look at the merit of what Kennedy accomplished while in office, the public's fascination with him is baseless.

What do you think? Was JFK one of the greatest presidents? Take the poll and comment below.

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