October 5th, 2019


Ranking the Presidents: John F. Kennedy

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade John F. Kennedy, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. Few Presidents have captured the imagination of the nation following their election victory as much as John F. Kennedy. He was youthful and vibrant and had a beautiful wife and very young children. The power couple was ideal for the cover of magazines from many different genres. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected President (Theodore Roosevelt had become President at a younger age, but was older than Kennedy at the time he was elected.) His youth was a contrast to that of the septuagenarian President Dwight Eisenhower that he succeeded, and the media projected a romanticized notion of the the Kennedy presidency. His White House was dubbed "Camelot" in reference to King Arthur's court and the youthful President acquired a status akin to a Hollywood celebrity. Throughout his Presidency Kennedy would face challenges more daunting than any President had faced thus far, including the threat of a nuclear attack on US soil. He would perform excellently in some cases and not so well in others. His assassination would give him the status of a beloved national martyr, though this image would be tarnished by revelations of human failing that would be revealed after his death.


John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1917. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His father was the wealthy Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., a wealthy and successful businessman who later served as Ambassador to Great Britain. His mother was Rose Kennedy, the daughter of a former Boston Mayor. He graduated from Harvard University in 1940 and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve the following year. During World War II, he commanded a series of PT boats in the Pacific theater and earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his service. His older brother Joe was supposed to be the future President, but when Joe was killed in the war, the mantle of political responsibility fell to him.

After the war, Kennedy represented the 11th congressional district of Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate and served as the junior Senator from Massachusetts from 1953 to 1960. While in the Senate, he published his book Profiles in Courage, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. In an early age of primary politicking, he parlayed his youth and energy, aided by his family's wealth, to win the 1960 Democratic Party's presidential nomination. In a very close election, Kennedy narrowly defeated Republican opponent Richard Nixon, the incumbent vice president. At age 43, he became the second-youngest man to serve as president (after Theodore Roosevelt), the youngest man to be elected as U.S. president, as well as the only Roman Catholic to hold the office. He was also the first president to have served in the U.S. Navy.

Kennedy's time in office was one of significant tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the height the Cold War. Like his predecessors, Kennedy wanted to stop the spread of communism throughout the world. He increased the number of American military advisers in South Vietnam eighteen fold over the number that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had put in that country. In April 1961, he authorized a failed joint-CIA attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. To his credit, he publicly shouldered the blame for the fiasco. His on the job training continued on June 4, 1961, when he met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and left the meetings angry and disappointed that he had allowed the premier to bully him.

But Kennedy grew in the job. He subsequently rejected Operation Northwoods plans by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to orchestrate false flag attacks on American soil in order to gain public approval for a war against Cuba, though his administration continued to plan for an invasion of Cuba in the summer of 1962. In October 1962, U.S. spy planes discovered that Soviet missile bases had been deployed in Cuba; the resulting period of significant tension known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It nearly resulted in the breakout of a global thermonuclear conflict, as Kennedy resisted calls from some of his military leaders to bomb the Cubans, provoking World War Three. Domestically, Kennedy presided over the establishment of the Peace Corps, and offered lukewarm support for the civil rights movement, but was only somewhat successful in passing his New Frontier domestic policies.

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas while on a visit intended to patch up divisions in the state's Democratic Party. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the state crime, but he was killed by Jack Ruby two days later. Those old enough at the time of Kennedy's assassination can remember where they were when they heard the news. It was one of those events that was etched in people's memories. Both the FBI and the Warren Commission officially concluded that Oswald had acted alone in the assassination, but those findings are considered doubtful in many quarters and many believe that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. After Kennedy's death, Congress enacted many of his proposals, including the Civil Rights and the Revenue Acts of 1964. After his death, it was reveled that Kennedy had hidden his lifelong health ailments as well as many extra-marital affairs.

Historians and political scientists tend to rank Kennedy as an above-average president. He is usually the highest-ranking president among those who served less than one full term. But assessments of his policies are mixed. The early part of his administration was filled with missteps, the most glaring of which were the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1961 Vienna summit. But Kennedy is credited for the notable successes of the second half of his presidency, namely the calm manner in which he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, avoiding nuclear war. He is criticized for his escalation of the U.S. presence in Vietnam and his effectiveness in domestic affairs has also been questioned. His most important programs, such as health insurance for the elderly, federal aid for education, and tax reform, were blocked during his presidency. However many of Kennedy's proposals were passed after his death, during the Johnson administration, and Kennedy's death gave those proposals a moral forcefulness.

A 2014 Washington Post survey of 162 members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Kennedy 14th highest overall among the 43 persons who had been president. The survey also found Kennedy to be the most overrated U.S. president. A 2017 C-SPAN survey has Kennedy ranked among the top ten presidents of all-time. He received high marks for public persuasion and crisis leadership. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Kennedy as the 16th best president, while a 2006 poll of historians ranked Kennedy's decision to authorize the Bay of Pigs invasion as the eighth-worst mistake made by a sitting president.

According to the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes, "It was President Kennedy who was responsible for the rebuilding of the Special Forces and giving us back our Green Beret." At the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's death, a wreath in the form of the Green Beret would be placed on the grave. Kennedy was the first of six presidents to have served in the U.S. Navy, and one of the legacies of his administration was the creation in 1961 of another special forces command, the Navy SEALs.

Kennedy's civil rights proposals formed the basis to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ushered in by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's successor. Johnson, the renowned "Master of the Senate", steered the bill through a bitterly divided Congress by invoking the slain president's memory. Kennedy's continuation of the policy of giving economic and military aid to South Vietnam created the climate for Johnson's escalation of the war. At the time of Kennedy's death, no final policy decision had been made as to Vietnam, leading historians, cabinet members, and writers to speculate about whether or not the Vietnam conflict would have escalated to the point it did if Kennedy had survived. His earlier 1963 speech at American University suggest that he was ready to end the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War contributed greatly to a decade of national difficulties, amid violent disappointment on the political landscape.

Part of Kennedy's legacy is his eloquence. Many of Kennedy's speeches (especially his inaugural address) are considered iconic. In spite of his relatively short term in office, and the lack of major legislative accomplishments during his presidency, Americans regularly vote him as one of the best presidents.


Kennedy's assassination had an effect on many people, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Many vividly remember where they were when they first learned the news that Kennedy was assassinated, much as had happened with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or the September 11 attacks. The death of President Kennedy, and the ensuing confusion surrounding the facts of his assassination, marked a turning point and decline in the faith of the American people in the political establishment. Mistrust in the findings of the Warren Commission have spawned a spate of conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's death. Over half a century later, the vast majority still suspect that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. This will continue to be an enduring part of Kennedy's legacy.

Happy Birthday Chester Alan Arthur

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite obscure Presidents, Chester Alan Arthur. He was born on October 5th, probably 1829. (Arthur's tombstone says that he was born in 1830, but his leading biographer Thomas C. Reeves makes a much stronger case for Arthur being born in 1829, which would mean that he was born 190 years ago today).

Arthur's parents were the Reverend William Arthur and the former Malvina Stone. His father was born in Ireland and emigrated to Dunham, Lower Canada, (in present-day Quebec) in 1818 or 1819. Arthur's mother, Malvina Stone, was born in Vermont. Arthur's parents met while William Arthur was teaching at a school in Dunham, just over the border from her native Vermont. The two married in Dunham on April 12, 1821. In 1828, the family moved again, to Fairfield, Vermont where Chester Alan Arthur was born the following year. This would later lead to accusations by "birthers" that Arthur was actually born in Canada and therefore ineligible to be Vice-President (and later President).

The family moved to upstate New York where Arther grew up and practiced law in New York City. As a young lawyer he argued a number of civil rights cases. In 1854, Arthur was the lead attorney representing Elizabeth Jennings Graham, an African-American woman who was denied a seat on a streetcar. He won the case, and the verdict led to the desegregation of the New York City streetcar lines.

During the Civil War, Arthur served as quartermaster general in the Union Army, which came with the rank of Brigadier General. Following the war, he became active in Republican politics and quickly rose in the ranks of the political machine run by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Arthur was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to the lucrative and politically powerful post of Collector of the Port of New York in 1871, where he was an important supporter of Conkling and the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party. In 1878 the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, fired Arthur as part of a plan to reform the federal patronage system in New York. When James Garfield won the Republican nomination for president in 1880, Arthur, an eastern Stalwart, was nominated for vice president to balance the ticket.

After just half a year as vice president, Garfield was felled by an assassin's bullet and Arthur found himself unexpectedly in the president's chair. Arthur surprised everyone by taking up the cause of civil service reform. He signed the Pendleton Act into law and strongly enforced it. He vetoed a Rivers and Harbors Act that would have appropriated federal funds in a manner he thought excessive. He began to rebuild the United States Navy and toured Yellowstone National Park. Arthur was criticized for failing to alleviate the federal budget surplus that had been accumulating since the end of the Civil War. (Can you imagine a president today being criticized for having a surplus instead of a debt?)

Arthur's health suffered and he developed serious kidney problems. At first he tried to secure renomination in 1884, but his poor health was a serious impediment and he retired at the end of his term. Despite the low expectations for his presidency, many assessments of Arthur's presidency were positive ones. For example, journalist Alexander McClure wrote, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe."


Arthur had a very brief retirement due to his serious kidney ailment. In 1886, after summering in New London, Connecticut, he returned to his home in Albany, New York, quite ill. On November 16, ordered nearly all of his papers, both personal and official, burned. The next morning, Arthur suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness. He died the following day, on November 18, 1886 at the age of 57. An editorial in the New York World summed up Arthur's presidency following his death with these words: "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation." Mark Twain wrote of him, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."

Two recent biographies of Chester Alan Arthur have been written recently. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur is written by Scott Greenberger. A recent review of this book can be found in the community here. In 2019 John Pafford wrote The Accidental President: Chester Alan Arthur.