My father was obsessed with everything John F. Kennedy. During my childhood, in the '80s, I remember stacks of books about Kennedy, his assassination, the conspiracy theories; none of which he ever believed, but his interest in Kennedy's legacy prompted him to read everything he could about him. I would scan to the picture section in the middle of these books, analyzing this young, vibrant man with the beautiful family who, based on the sheer volume of books my dad had on him, everybody apparently was cra cra for and whose life was tragically cut short. Back then, I couldn't comprehend the impact of Kennedy's legacy, but I could sense his importance by the interest my father took in him.
My father's admiration for Kennedy contrasted with his deep hatred for Ronald Reagan. Rarely a day would go by when I didn't hear him get irrationally angry over something he read or saw Reagan say. To my dad, the only thing shining atop Reagan's hill were the Rolex watches of the top 1 percent that benefited from Reaganomics. There were times when I thought he might flip the table over. There were other times when I thought he was going to throw his coffee at the wall. All because of "THAT HYPOCRITE REAGAN!" Reagan is a puppet for the conservative movement, my dad would say, an actor reading his lines while simultaneously destroying the country. If I ever wanted to distract my dad from noticing something wrong I had done, I'd bring up Reagan to send him on a rant. It mostly worked.
It was hard for child-me to understand why he hated Reagan. He seemed like a nice old man, a grandpa figure. He ate jelly beans and rode horses? HELLO, this guy is cool! And he got shot and lived (something Kennedy, sadly, missed out on). I did not understand at all how my father could hate this guy and adore the other guy that died? It didn't make sense to me.
As an adult I understand the difference. There were deep-rooted political convictions behind my father's heated opinions that child-me was never gonna grasp. Child-me focused on comparing Kennedy and Reagan based upon child values like an interest in jelly beans and an ability to survive an assassination. Now, with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination and the outpouring of specials, pieces and pundits, the comparison between the two has grown greater in my mind. Even as an adult, I'm can't think about Kennedy without thinking... but how is he greater than Reagan again?
I wasn't alive for Kennedy's assassination and I wasn't old enough to think analytically about Reagan during his time in office, so my view of both of them has been shaped by history and how it was recorded. And let's be real, can you name two other presidents of the past 50 years with more things named after them? From airports to schools to highways, naming something after Kennedy/Reagan is as common as Kim Kardashian wearing something form fitting. This is because both sides of the political spectrum have made them into heroes.
Kennedy was this dashing young politician with a beautiful family and new agenda for the coming decade (the '60s). He was the new order, ushering in a new way of thinking about the possibilities of the country. So much newness! His predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, was the old order -- even though his opponent, Nixon, had lost by a mere fraction of a percentage -- Kennedy's election was a referendum on that old order because the country saw an opportunity for a new youthful direction after years of the old cats running the show. In essence, Kennedy offered hope for a change in the direction of the country -- a chance to embrace the possibility of the future with an eager willingness (sound familiar, Obama?). During his short time in office, Kennedy made real strides in civil rights, created the Peace Corps, helped avoid the Cuban Missile Crisis and inspired a generation of Democratic leaders (Clinton, Obama). Yay! He also basically wrote off Cuba, turned the Bay of Pigs into the Bay of WTF?!?!, turned a blind eye when the Berlin Wall went up, and increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Uh oh.
Reagan's beginnings were not that different from Kennedy's. Like Kennedy, Reagan came into office on a campaign of change. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had approval ratings as low as a president could have. Like we're talking Sean Saves the World kind of low ratings. The economy was in the tank, people were out of work, and a slew of Americans were being held hostage in Iran (aka Argo and that sexy, sexy Ben Affleck beard... what was I saying?). The country was hungry for a new direction, and Reagan wooed Americans towards his direction with his wit and his charm. It worked. Reagan won 44 states in 1980 and basically sent a big "suck it" to Carter and the Democrats. During his presidency, he ended the Cold War, made Russia an ally, and inspired a generation of conservative leaders (Bush 2, the Tea Party -- in case you haven't noticed, they kinda like Reagan). Yay! He also brought the country into massive debt, turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic, and sold a lot of weapons to Iran. Uh oh.
Notwithstanding all the above, Kennedy and Reagan are consistently rated among the Top 10 presidents in history alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Why though? What did they do, really, that ranks them so high? If we were ranking them based on how they made people feel, great, yes, put 'em in the Top 10. But really, do Kennedy's and Reagan's accomplishments measure up to Abraham Lincoln's? Do you really think Daniel Day-Lewis will ever play Kennedy or Reagan?
I know what you're thinking, Kennedy only had three years and Reagan had eight. I can't help that Reagan managed to be president a good five years longer and he still is kinda even with Kennedy.
Term lengths aside, these two presidents actually have a lot in common. Reagan was an admitted admirer of Kennedy, both had tragic ends (Kennedy's assassination; Reagan's decline to Alzheimer's), both had wives who worked ardently to define their husbands' legacies (Jackie's creation of Camelot; Nancy's campaign for stem cell research), and both came into office with an infatuated country and even more infatuated press corps. Nice feelings, yes, but what did they DO? The answer is -- not much, really. Both presidents have a severe lack of accomplishments to show for their presidencies, a fierce opposition from the opposing party, and a myth machine that continues to heroize them.
So why do we heroize them? Before the onslaught of a 24-hour news cycle, these two men were easily the most candid and visual presidents of the 20th century. Not only were they extensively covered, but they knew how to communicate through television in a way few presidents are able to do. We had a relationship with them, a dialogue; when they spoke it was as if they were speaking directly to us. It didn't matter if their policies affected us or not, or even if we understood what they were saying, in the end we cared about them. In 1960, the only people that went to the moon were in sci-fi movies, but Kennedy made it feel like a reality. In the 1980s Russia was an evil empire that essentially imprisoned its people (including those in East Germany and in Bond movies), but Reagan contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. Yes, these are actual great accomplishments. Accomplishments that were communicated during their presidencies. Accomplishments that were not actually realized during their presidencies. In fact, the U.S. went to the moon in 1968 under Nixon and the Berlin Wall came down when Bush 1 was president. The strength of their communication and connection to the American public was so strong that their words caused action in their successors' administrations. That's power.
Still, those powerful legacies shouldn't turn Americans into legend lemmings -- if Kennedy jumped off a cliff, would you? Just because they had tragic ends, America should not turn our leaders into heroes -- it blinds us to their humanity. They are humans, they make mistakes. It's important to remember their mistakes, because often times it is their mistakes that make them better leaders. If we're able to recognize them for their actions, including the power of the way they communicated and connected with the American public, then we'll be better off.
Right now President Obama's approval rating is about as low as it's ever been during his years in office. It can't be fun. He's made some choices, he's made some mistakes. Democrats are angry, Republicans have always been angry, and everyone else is watching Big Bang Theory. But, let's remember how we came to know Barack Obama. Through a speech. Like Kennedy and Reagan, Obama has that special, magical, presidential gift of communication paired with strong president achievements. Give it 10 or 20 years, everybody is going to forget about the HealthCare.gov website, and they're going to remember a man who won his presidency on the promise of hope and change, just like, well, you know who.