Thursday, January 20, 2011

JFK 50 and Post-Presidential Reputation

Robert Dallek has a nice article today in Salon about the puzzling post-presidential reputation of John F. Kennedy, who shows no sign of slipping in the public's esteem, even as fewer and fewer are around who actually remember him or voted for him.

Dallek also notes that Ronald Reagan does well in post-presidential polling, and attributes it to mainly to style, I think; he calls Kennedy and Reagan "master psychologists of the middle classes."

Perhaps. As usual, I lean towards institutional explanations, and to our old friend the one-sided information flow. As I've said before, four postwar presidents have had serious, sustained efforts to enhance their reputations. Two, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, were essentially single-person efforts. The other two, Kennedy and Reagan, benefited from publicity campaigns on their behalf. That model seems to be the successful one, especially long-term. The result of that kind of campaign is one-sided information flow, because there's not much of any reason for anyone to waste their time agitating against an ex-president.

(Similarly it became logical for lots of reasons for New Dealers, including New Deal historians, to praise Woodrow Wilson, which in my view is the reason for Wilson's overrated reputation).

As far as I can tell, which presidents get this treatment is almost random. Kennedy happened to have a large, wealthy family and many talented staff and supporters interested in that sort of thing; that does sort well with what I think was a very personal presidency, but there are other personal presidencies that didn't generate much after the White House. Reagan had a conservative movement eager for a symbolic leader. Carter and Nixon just happened to care about their reputations, apparently, a lot more than, say, Gerald Ford or either George Bush seemed to.

I'm not sure where to place Bill Clinton. He's certainly tried to be visible doing good works, like Carter, but (and perhaps this is just my personal sense of things) Clinton seems a whole lot less self-aggrandizing than does Carter. Sure, WJC is campaigning for himself and his party; no question but that he's a born politician, and he'll never really turn that off. But it just doesn't strike me as similar to Carter's never-ending quest for sainthood. Clinton is also, almost certainly, the most partisan ex-president in modern times. (Ever? Could be). And then you have the unique so far situation of an ex-president whose wife has been a national-level politician; I don't know if that should be interpreted as part of Bill Clinton's publicity campaign, or as something that distracts from any efforts he might want to make to enhance his reputation.


  1. Jonathan:

    Actually, Herbert Hoover was quite partisan as an ex-prez, it's just that no one was listening.

    My favorite example, from a book by John Spanier about Truman/MacArthur, was Hoover publicly declaring MacArthur a modern Saint Paul.

  2. A couple of weeks ago I read Will Bunch's Tear Down This Myth, which is about the right-wing deification of Reagan after he left office. Bunch does briefly compare and contrast the Reagan myth with the Kennedy myth:

    "Many would argue that Kennedy's presidency has been mythologized, too, as an idyllic Camelot cut down by a hail of bullets in an act that seemed to trigger the violence of the 1960s, the very mayhem that would give rise to the age of Reagan. It is very much like the Reagan myth that we make movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis but don't talk as much about the Bay of Pigs or Kennedy's stumbling 1961 summit with Nikita Kruschchev. However, the legend of JFK is largely attached to his youthful charm--as so famously and disastrously cited by the GOP's Dan Quayle in a 1988 vice presidential debate--and his astute handling of a crisis in Cuba graver than anything ever faced by the Gipper, and not by Kennedy's forgotten and probably obsolete center-left policies.

    "That's quite different from the Reagan story line that was launched by a new aggressive breed of conservatives while he was still very much alive, as a tool not just to win elections but to sell a specific ideology--to hold the line on new taxes even as the federal deficit soared and stay the course in Iraq even as the American presence seemed to create even more senseless violence." (p. 19)

  3. Clinton is certainly not the most partisan ex-president ever. See Harold Holzer, Lincoln, President Elect, on the 1860-61 transition and events leading up to the Civil War (pp. 274 ff.). Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and John Tyler all stuck their noses into the the secession crisis; Tyler was especially troublesome, and even went on to serve in office under the Confederacy. Joining a treasonous conspiracy against the United States probably retires the crown for post-presidential partisanship.

  4. One non-institutional factor: Both FDR and JFK had Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a master of putting his subjects in a favorable light without quite crossing crossing the line into hagiography.

  5. For JFK, isn't the assassination the missing ingredient?

    Bill Clinton, of course, has been a relatively young and vigorous ex-president (left office at 54, and at 65, he's still younger than Reagan or George H. W. Bush were at the end of their presidencies). He also left office fairly popular, unlike Nixon or Carter or Hoover.

    Harry Truman was a pretty partisan ex-president, unable to hide his hatred for Republicans in general and Eisenhower in particular. But he played a very different role than Clinton has. Unlike Clinton, Truman left office intensely unpopular. He also seemed incapable of rising above the fray, getting involved in petty political squabbles both when in the White House or after leaving it.

    His ham-handed attempts to block the nominations of Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 failed, giving him a reputation as a crotchety, ineffective old coot. While Clinton obviously fought Obama in 2008, he seems to have made up with him, and has been a pretty loyal team player. By contrast, Truman never established a good relationship with JFK; by the time LBJ became president, Truman was too enfeebled to play a significant role.

  6. I think you're onto something with the "one-sided information flow", but I think you also discount some important factors.

    1. Kennedy was assassinated. Craven as it is to politicize tragedy, martyred leaders always poll better than even the most popular politicians - even though Kennedy wasn't killed for any particular reason. I'm sure that this at least partially contributes to Kennedy's enduring popularity - his death enhances the meaning of his life, and therefore his political message.

    2. Popular culture. Seeing Kennedy's face on the cover of Vanity Fair, Time, Newsweek after all these years must reinforce the perception of greatness, or at the very least, having an enduring legacy. A "One sided information flow", not coming from Kennedy or his supporters, but the mass media.

    3. Perhaps the basest, most reptilian reason: Kennedy looked like a great President. Young, handsome, commanding, surely the master of the aesthetics of leadership (far beyond Carter or Nixon, or even Reagan). Throw PT-109, Harvard, Boston, Irish-Catholic into the mix...quite the effective combination.

  7. Really interesting comments.


    I know very little about Tyler, certainly nothing about his post-pres time, but: I thought he didn't even have a party, so how was he *partisan*?

    Anon 12:29,

    Yes, but I think there's a real good chance that the reason JFK has been on magazine covers, and that people know about PT-109, has to do with the Kennedy operation. Yes, assassination probably helped (I say crassly) as did looks, but as Dallek points out it didn't work for McKinley (or for Garfield, FWIW). So, yes, but just remember that the way we perceive/remember stuff like "aesthetics of leadership" has a lot to do with which things we are reminded of.

  8. Richard and I have clearly been reading some of the same stuff, because my first reaction was to jump to Truman as well.

    In fact, I'm not sure that it'd be innacurate to turn the data around. What ex-presidents (who were alive, had their faculties, and could appear in public!) weren't overly partisan?
    I'll start at WWII:
    Our list goes Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, (Nixon?), Ford, Carter, Bush I, Clinton.
    Of those, Truman and Clinton were clearly partisan. Carter has been engaged in his one-man crusade to save Carter. Ike, Ford, LBJ and Bush I largely disappeared, at least that's my sense. And Nixon...well, one could argue that he was exiled on Elba.

    I'm not sure what to make of that list.

  9. Ford was pretty visible during the Carter Administration, when he was still a possible Republican presidential candidate. After the failure of the "co-presidency" idea at the 1980 GOP convention, Ford mostly played golf for 20 years, as far as I can tell.

    LBJ left the White House ready to die. George H. W. Bush seems to have confined his political activities to advancing his sons' prospects.

    Despite not being a natural partisan, Ike played some role in Republican politics after the White House. He did some campaigning and fundraising in 1962, worked behind the scenes to keep Goldwater from getting the nomination, but gave a fiery convention speech attacking "sensation-seeking columnists" and warning against "maudlin sympathy" for criminals. He even cut an ad for Goldwater on election's eve. By the 1966 and 1968 elections, Ike was an old man in poor health who no longer sought the spotlight.

  10. Re JFK, he's about the only modern president about whom it can be said, the more I read about him, the more I'm impressed.

    As for "one-sided information flow": you're forgetting the many one-sided anti-Kennedy tomes that have appeared, mostly since the mid-70s and the revelations about his extracurricular sex life. Many anti-JFK books, many citing and repeating each other circularly and published primarily to titillate and spread baseless gossip (it's all libel-proof folks), plus a number of sleazy or semi-sleazy tv docs and movies, again with emphasis on negative personal stuff that gets blown wildly out of proportion.

    Yes, the Kennedy family is large as is the number of his supporters, but their ability to overwhelm or swamp the flow of information is greatly exaggerated -- particularly as compared to the Reagan Propaganda Machine, which constitutes approx 95% of the market.

    Re his assass'n being the "missing ingredient", yes but not in the way you intended probably. Then as today, many Qs surround it, and most (judging by most polls) don't buy the simple official version. Thus people have focused on the murder being an inside/govt/domestic group hit, carried out for reasons of serious policy disagreement.

    Connected to this, many wonder if JFK's decision not to send combat troops into VN (see NSAM 263, signed October 5, 1963) and even to begin withdrawing troops, was the final straw that doomed him with the CIA/Pentagon.

    Btw, it's only been in the past 15 yrs or so, as long-secret VN-related govt docs have finally been released, that a solid case in favor of JFK getting out of Nam could have been made. And only recently have a few scholars produced book-length studies that back this analysis from the doc record. Only recently too have a few authors -- James Douglass most notably -- gone into the new records to see a JFK in his final year aggressively working with Khrushchev, and indirectly with Castro, to begin to end the cold war. Many observers, probably like Will Bunch, were working from the old rather too-cynical script about Kennedy.

  11. By contrast, Truman never established a good relationship with JFK

    Disagree here. Though not friendly or overly warm, their relationship did greatly improve after Kennedy got the nom and won the election, then as JFK kind of flattered Truman by calling him often to brief him about matters, and inviting him to the WH (Ike had not) for further conversations. Truman I think was greatly impressed by Kennedy's grasp of the issues and his intelligence, and all the prior nonsense about his lack of sufficient seasoning for the job went by the wayside. Finally, I think Dallas greatly upset him, and his very intriguing 12-22-63 WaPo editorial, re how the CIA appeared to be getting out of control, while not overtly mentioning the assass'n, was, imo, intended to suggest such connection.

    Re LBJ, post-presidency (only 4 yrs) spent a lot of time putting his LBJ Library and School of Govt together -- funding, staffing, etc -- plus his memoirs, assisted by Harvard scholar Doris Kearns. Iow, he was very much involved in trying to shape his reputation. Politically, he would have been more openly involved had the Dems in 1972 nominated someone more to his liking -- i.e. more conservative or hawkish about the war -- than the liberal antiwar Geo McGovern. So all he did that year was issue the most lukewarm paper "endorsement" of the visiting McGovern while refusing to appear with him publicly.

    Carter: he probably felt unfairly robbed by the Reagan forces, plus Teddy earlier, of a deserved 2d term, and felt unfairly dismissed by the historians and media analysts. Not surprising therefore that he'd be rather aggressive in his post-presidency trying to do good works, trying to be a player on the world stage.

  12. Well, JB, what do you mean by "partisan"? I thought you meant taking sides in the party / political controversies of the day. What set off the secession crisis was the fact that the South (or elements thereof) wouldn't accept a Republican president. To me, trying to split the country is a pretty strong response to a partisan defeat, and Tyler got right in the middle of it. But maybe I'm misunderstanding the phenomenon you had in mind.

  13. To put it another way: Secession was, among other things, a rather heated campaign against Lincoln and the Republicans, albeit one waged after the election rather than before. Whatever Tyler would have called himself, he was prepared to go to war against Republican Party rule. (I know the feeling, BTW.)

  14. Hate to go MacBeth/Hamlet on y'all, but perhaps the mythologizing of Kennedy is somehow related to a fairly banal interpretation of his death: with all due respect to the Cuban/Russian/Martian mafia, the only suspect connected federally, to influence the Secret Service to stand back (and have Kennedy in an open-air convertible), as well as locally, to get an armed Ruby into the Dallas police station, was a guy who a) hated Kennedy and b) had the most personally to gain from Kennedy's death.

    LBJ was the cultural antithesis of Kennedy (though LBJ's policies, curiously, seem to have driven his demographic to the Republicans). I suspect that most folks buy Oliver Stone-type interpretations of Kennedy's death, because, while we like plays like Hamlet and MacBeth and all, stuff like that would never happen here. But perhaps the mythologizing of Kennedy is in part due to guys like him being replaced by guys like LBJ (however one chooses to interpret said replacing).

  15. I'm not sure "who gets this treatment" is quite as random as you think, at least not on the "public campaign" side. In fact, I think it's fair to see several similarities between JFK and Reagan- the most important of which being that neither one of them was really around after their presidencies. Much easier to become an icon like that when no one has to reconcile it with the man they see walking around.

    As for the "private campaigns" group, there's similarities there, too- Carter and Nixon both had a weird combination of guilt and resentment toward the electorate. But I'm not sure why Ford or the Bushes wouldn't feel the same thing, except for psyhological factors that are certainly more random.

    The only thing I can think of is that resignation in the face of impeachment and an absolute electoral thumping that turns you and your government into an epithet is obviously a harsher judgment than losing in a squeaker, losing a three-way race (and most of your accomplishments staying intact) or retiring after two terms. But I still think had Ford or Bush I been less genial or Bush II been more checked in to his political stock, they could easily have done the same thing (and hell, it's still early to call Bush II, isn't it?)

    As for Clinton, I think he fits comfortably in the second group. No real public campaign (anyone who could do it is more busy governing), a clear reason to feel the need to redeem himself (impeachment), and fairly relentlessly staying in the public eye. Sure, he's doing more for Dems as a whole than his own reputation right now, but I think a lot of that should be understood as making up for 2008.


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