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Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Revisiting Kennedy's legacy 100 years after his birth.
President John F. Kennedy speaks at a press conference on August 1st, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy speaks at a press conference on August 1st, 1963.

"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." —John F. Kennedy

May 29th will mark the 100th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's birth. For someone with such a brief tenure in the White House, he casts a surprisingly long shadow, so this seems like a good moment to reflect on him and the mythology that surrounds him.

Evaluations about Kennedy's presidency have shifted around a good deal over the years, but, in many ways, it's remarkable how highly he is regarded. Surveys of presidential historians regularly place Kennedy among the top 10 presidents—ahead of the Jameses Polk, Madison, and Monroe, and others with substantial accomplishments in office. His approval ratings remained in the 60s and 70s for most of his presidency, only dipping below 60 in his last few months in office. Americans today see Kennedy as the best of the post-war presidents.

And his legacy since his untimely death has only grown. He is widely associated with the Moon landings, even though his "We choose to go to the Moon" speech occurred seven years before the actual landings, all of which occurred during President Richard Nixon's first term. His name is borne by the NASA launch operations center in Florida; an airport in New York; a performing arts center in Washington, D.C.; an aircraft carrier; several university departments and colleges; and more middle schools, high schools, streets, and plazas, both here and around the world, than you can imagine. His face has adorned the half-dollar coin since 1964. All this is to say that it would be very hard to ignore Kennedy even if you wanted to.

This enduring legacy is the result of several things, including a very determined and well-funded effort by Kennedy's family and supporters to enshrine his memory by naming many, many things after him. This determined branding campaign was made easier by the fact that he was young (only 46) and popular at the time of his assassination, an event that has often been depicted as some sort of government conspiracy. It's easy for many to look at the tumult later in the 1960s—including the Vietnam War; the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the race riots that engulfed many cities; the downfall of President Lyndon Johnson and the rise of Nixon—as stemming from Kennedy's early demise.

John F Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, making a telephone call.

John F Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, making a telephone call.

But what do we base this on? He actually had a fairly modest record of achievement. He pressed for a Civil Rights Act, but this didn't pass until after his death. He surely deserves some credit for pushing the Democratic Party toward embracing civil rights activists, although most of his actions on this front seem rather tepid in hindsight, particularly compared to President Dwight Eisenhower's deployment of the 101st Airborne in Little Rock and Johnson's achievements on the civil rights and voting rights acts.

In foreign affairs, his administration started off with a pretty epic bellyflop at the Bay of Pigs. Opinions vary considerably on his stewardship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even if he deserves credit for keeping a cool head and securing a positive outcome from a moment of terrifying brinksmanship, he surely deserves some blame for getting the nation to that point in the first place. And while the Vietnam War was still only a relatively minor scuffle at the point of Kennedy's death, it was well on its way toward its disastrous escalation. The same political forces that compelled Johnson to commit more and more blood and treasure in Southeast Asia would surely have acted upon Kennedy had he lived and won re-election.

And then there's the personal side of Kennedy—the womanizing, the drug abuse, the risk-taking, the fact that he suffered terrific pain and debilitating illnesses. Most of these things might have made him unelectable had the media not agreed to keep them under wraps.

And yet.

Pretty much any time I interview a Democratic political activist or officeholder over the age of 60 and ask them why they got into politics, they mention Kennedy and his call to service. The Peace Corps, the space program, his speeches, and more are frequently mentioned as inspiring a generation of young people to get involved in politics and see government as a noble calling.

This sort of inspirational quality is rare among presidents—or anyone, really—and is difficult to quantify. But it shouldn't be dismissed. Kennedy's rhetoric and approach inspired people and continues to do so today. We could dismiss all this as just an exercise in branding, but it's very good branding. And if it's used to encourage people to try to improve the world in some way, that's hardly wasted effort.

So as we look back on a century of Kennedy, it's worth parsing the man from the myth, but also to recognize the value that the myth serves.