Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Americans Have Again Ranked JFK Among the 3 Best Modern Presidents

Feb 16, 2018

Americans Have Again Ranked JFK Among the 3 Best Modern Presidents

tags: JFK,presidential polls

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Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Think for a moment about John F. Kennedy. What comes to mind, excluding the assassination, which obviously is memorable, and the stories of his adultery, which I just mentioned, and which are therefore easily called up from memory? I will guess that it is an image of some kind: Kennedy on his sailboat, his hair flying in the wind. Or Kennedy playing touch football on the lawn of the family estate in Hyannis Port. Or Jack and Jackie out for a stroll. Or Kennedy (hatless) delivering his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .” Or, my favorite, a tanned Kennedy wearing his Ray-Bans and an Izod Lacoste open-collar shirt.

Why is it important what images come to mind? I think it helps us understand something that is almost incomprehensible. When Americans are asked—today—to name the greatest presidents of the United States, they routinely mention Kennedy among the top three. This is difficult to understand. Any fair estimate of his legacy is that it was modest. The only major legislation he got passed was a tax cut lowering the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent. His foreign policy record included one out-and-out disaster (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which had to be abandoned); one near-disaster (the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he successfully defused but inadvertently triggered, partly as a result of a  flawed performance at a summit months earlier with the Soviet leader, who concluded that Kennedy could be bullied); and a disaster-in-waiting (Vietnam, to which Kennedy sent 16,000 “advisers”). The civil rights laws, with which he is closely associated, were actually passed by Lyndon Johnson.

Larry Sabato survey 2018

So what can account for Kennedy’s enduring popularity more than fifty years after his death? Historians tell us it’s owing to many factors, which they cited in the numerous studies and articles that appeared in 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. These include, they said, his charisma, his soaring rhetoric, his support for the civil rights movement (which Democrats like), his advocacy of tax cuts (which Republicans like), his identification with the prosperous 1960s economy, his peace speech at American University in 1963, his commitment to inspiring national projects, including the moon landing and the Peace Corps, and, of course, sadness at his gruesome assassination. 

A poll commissioned by the political scientist Larry Sabato, the author of one of the anniversary assassination books, found that older Americans who have living memories of Kennedy rank him a little higher than those who don’t, which suggests that his presidential record, hazy as it may be, is probably affecting the way these older Americans think about Kennedy. But both young and old Americans hold roughly the same views. Asked to state which American president they’d want living in the White House today, Kennedy was the pick in 2013 of 16 percent of those over 54 and 11 percent of those 54 and under. A 2018 survey found that JFK was ranked the best of all modern presidents. (See chart above.)

But could the historians be making this more complicated than it actually is? Is how we think about Kennedy really influenced by a deep knowledge of his achievements? Recall what came to mind in our thought experiment a moment ago. It wasn’t Kennedy’s achievements, it was those regnant images. This suggests that Kennedy is remembered by ordinary Americans as a great president because the pictures of him in our head are compelling and positive and mythical. It’s not his accomplishments that matter so much—most people, after all, don’t know much of anything about his record—but all those images. 

John F. Kennedy looked convincing as a leader. That’s why he became Hollywood’s idea of a president. Presidents in the movies don’t look like Dwight D. Eisenhower (though historians rank him a better president), they look like John Kennedy. The man and the myth come together in pictures. And the pictures in our head come easily to mind because the pictures are readily available to us. We don’t have to struggle to call up flattering images of Kennedy. The human brain allows us to call them to mind quickly because our brain readily digests information in the form of images. Around 50 percent of our brain is devoted to visual tasks. Pictures are readily recalled. This leads us to trust them as a source of good information.

What all this suggests is that Kennedy cannot be considered apart from his images. They are a powerful part of his legacy. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Kennedy would be lionized by young people today but for these images. Vision is that critical. And that's a bit frightening. 

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