Who was the real JFK? I don't really recall that much about John Kennedy. He died when I was six years old. Like everyone else, though I remember where I was the day they announced his assassination...I was on the playground when other kids started saying that the president had been shot. I think one actually told me that President Lincoln had been shot but that was probably because we had studied two presidents: Lincoln and Washington. Lincoln freed the slaves and grew a beard because a little girl told him in a letter she thought it was a good idea, and Washington who never told a lie were who we had heard of. While this may seem like a digression to you, you may also begin to see how these myths grow and take on lives of their own.
The fact is that Kennedy didn't live long enough as president to really see what his legacy might be, but when you look at the progressives of today, you would think he was a crusading civil rights supporter who would have kept us out of Vietnam and whose strong stance against the USSR on the Cuban missiles and stellar foreign affairs would lead us into a new age.
What I've actually been able to find was the new "Camelot," as this time has been referred to, is something of a myth as well. It was Kennedy that started the Peace Corp and called to America's youth. It was JFK who wanted us to go to the moon by decade's end and insisted on emphasis on math and science. If you think about this, the students in school at the time of this push would hardly be the great scientists and mathematicians ready to lead us to the moon, since they would barely be out of school by decade's end if at all.
Kennedy won the Pulitzer prize for his book Profiles in Courage. Most agree now that while the idea was Kennedy's the true style of the book was by his speech writer, Ted Sorenson. There is much debate as to how much writing Kennedy did on the book or whether Sorenson was actually the ghost writer of the book.
Kennedy was a long ways from the "middle class" guy the progressives used to attack Romney. Kennedy, like Romney, was a child of privilege too. He was, however, a consummate politician. He was also something of a playboy having had affairs with the likes of Marilyn Monroe. He was a strong Catholic and was, as many of that generation, anti-Communist and most likely anti-Semitic. As President, Kennedy was frequently attacked for his tepid stance on Civil Rights. As a member of Congress, he strongly supported the anti-Communism policies of Truman. As a senator, he supported Joe McCarthy's extremist hunt for the Red Stain. Brother Bobby worked on McCarthy's staff and Dad Joe viewed McCarthy as an ally.
To raise his own polling points, John and Bobby, went after Union corruption. This brought about a round of hearings on Unions and resulted in several Federal laws controlling Union activity. During his time, as Representative and Senator, Kennedy knew Richard Nixon and despite the myth that he hated him, he actually respected the man. It was fellow liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, that he did not trust.
As President, his foreign policy was far from successful. It was because of his seemingly weakness in the area that Khrushchev believed he could put missiles into Cuba and it was possibly the US strong dislike of Castro that caused Castro to allow the missiles. Few realized at the time how close we came to a nuclear war. Kennedy also used a completely fictitious "missile gap" that he blamed on the Eisenhower administration to start a new round of building ballistic missile in a race with the Russians.
He barely won his first bid for the White House. It was not some popular land side. He actually won by just 100,000 votes of the 69 million cast. There was some talk of voter fraud at the time. His famous quote of "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" wasn't just a reminder of the Peace Corp, but just as likely a reminder that the government wasn't going to be expanding the social welfare program.
While he was alive, many pundits of the time considered his presidency as mediocre at best which was largely a series of crisis. Kennedy committed to getting rid of Castro. This led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco followed by the Missiles of October.
One of the more recent speculations is that Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam. It is exactly that, however, a speculation. The fact is though that he increased our involvement in that particular war and it was his former vice president, Johnson, that built on that expansion. One of the largest myths about Kennedy getting us out of Vietnam is probably this idea. It was Kennedy's desire to regain some credibility following the Bay of Pigs that led him to sending "military advisers" to Vietnam. It has been reported that he said to one of his advisers, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place." So Kennedy escalated to the point where we were essentially fighting a ground war in Vietnam. His few hundred advisers, quickly became 15,000 in 1963. There in no evidence that he would have pulled out of Vietnam had he lived.
I like both Reagan and Kennedy. Both did great things too, but the myth has grown around the two to make them icons for the Right and the Left even though it is unlikely that either would now fit into the extremes of the Left or the Right. There is an effect that occurs after the presidency is over and that is a rising in the polls of approval for most presidents. Even Richard Nixon who resigned rather than face the likely first successful impeachment of a President, enjoyed a rise in approval years later. We forget the politics and deal making that a man like Lincoln was forced to make to pass an amendment or heal a torn nation. It is clear that presidents are men and good ones may reach beyond their actual accomplishments.