THE KENNEDY MYTH? THE KENNEDY LEGACY?

Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- It was the usual suspects taping the Charlie Rose show last Monday: a quartet of writers who had written books about the life or the presidency of John F. Kennedy -- Robert Dallek, Michael Beschloss, Jeff Greenfield and me, along with Jill Abramson, the editor of The New York Times.

The "Kennedy legacy" was the topic, of course. It is pretty hard to turn on the television these days without seeing us or authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Larry Sabato and a host of others. I have not counted, but somebody there said that 40,000 books have been written about our 35th president. I know that, this month alone, at least 140 have been or will be released, timed for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the president on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

Dallek said that he was dizzy from answering calls from newspapers and television networks around the world. Me, too. (Full disclosure: I am the general editor and Abramson wrote the foreword of one of those books, "The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of The New York Times.")

Most of the conversation during the taping was, predictably, about the national trauma of the assassination and the question of what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam if he had lived and won a second term. The consensus of the panel, with the exception of Greenfield, was that Kennedy probably would have started up the escalating trail blazed by President Lyndon Johnson, but he would not have gone as far as LBJ, who sent in more than 500,000 U.S. troops, 58,000 of whom never came home.

It is called "Johnson's War," but Kennedy started it. There were only a couple hundred American military "trainers" in that country when JFK was elected, and there were 15,000 when he was killed. More important, Kennedy signed off on the military coup by South Vietnamese generals that ended on Nov. 1, 1963, with the murder of South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem. "We broke it, we owned it," as Gen. Colin Powell said years later in a different context.

Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was dead. The news from Dallas overwhelmed the news of Diem's death and the incompetence of the parade of South Vietnamese generals we financed. Soon enough, Kennedy's men -- "the best and the brightest," they were called -- began a lifetime drumbeat of books and interviews asserting that their president planned to withdraw all American troops and military aid in his second term.

Maybe, but I doubt it. As we have learned again and again, as history repeats itself, it is easier to get into other people's wars than to get out.

After the show, I heard a young woman, a photographer, say: "Wow! I never realized that Kennedy and Vietnam was to your generation what Princess Diana and 9/11 is to ours."

Wow! There was a thought that never entered my mind. And it came on the same day that a front page story in the Times, by Adam Clymer, reported that high school textbooks no longer made Kennedy the "tragic hero" he was in earlier schoolbooks.

"In general, the picture has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one, whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments," wrote Clymer. "Averting war in the Cuban missile crisis got less attention and respect. Legislative setbacks and a deepening commitment in Vietnam got more. The Kennedy-era glamour seemed more image than reality.

"For example, a 1975 high school text by Clarence Ver Steeg and Richard Hofstadter said that in his handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, 'Kennedy's true nature as a statesman became fully apparent.' In 'A People and a Nation,' they said his 1963 limited nuclear test ban treaty 'was the greatest single step toward peace since the beginning of the Cold War.'"

In one newer text, Mary Beth Norton wrote: "He pursued civil rights with a notable lack of vigor." Really? Is that the same man I saw on national television declaring civil rights was "a moral issue," then putting the United States government on the side of the black minority rather than the white majority? No small thing in a democracy.

We shall see. I think Kennedy was a significant president, if not a Washington or Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, and that his legacy and status as a cultural icon will outlive the legend of Princess Diana.

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