The Worst President of the 20th Century: Part One

By Seth Studer

Foreword 

This week marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Over the next few weeks, I will write a series of posts reflecting on JFK, his life, his legacy, the office of the president, American history, cultural memory, and myself. The thread uniting these posts is a single thesis: John F. Kennedy was the worst president of the 20th century. Some posts will veer away from Kennedy, others will deal exclusively with Kennedy, but all will, in their own way, approach and grapple with the question of what it means to be “the worst president.”

A Tale of Two Libraries

Boston is a second home to me. I’m sure thousands of ex-grad students who’ve attended any of the dozens of universities along the Charles River feel the same way. The feeling runs a bit deeper for me, I think. I met my wife in Boston. She and her entire family hail from Boston, Dorchester, and the patchwork of suburbs that hug the harbor. Half of my family is there now, and I’ll never stop returning. I’ve tried to write about Boston before and failed. Boston is a place about which I’ve ceased to have easy or definite opinions. For me, that’s a pretty good definition of home.

My first home is eastern Iowa, the stretch between Waterloo and Iowa City. As a kid, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, located west of the University of Iowa in West Branch (pop. 2,322), was a frequent field trip. I probably visited Hoover’s museum ten times before I finished high school. The library sits near Hoover’s childhood home; the grounds feature renovations and reconstructions of his birthplace, his childhood barn, and the Quaker meetinghouse where he worshiped.

Hoover didn’t stay in Iowa long. His museum is filled with unintentionally hilarious mannequins of the cosmopolitan Hoovers traveling the globe: mining in Australia, feeding children in war-torn Europe, standing astride a canon during an anti-colonial uprising in China. (Mrs. Hoover, a woman of grit, does the striding.) Visiting the museum, I never reflected on the millions of acres of grain surrounding me, grain that would eventually leave Iowa and find its way to every continent. For me, the Hoover museum was a more immediate and tangible (if somewhat tacky) link between Iowa and the world.

Future first lady Lou Hoover posing by a canon during the Boxer Rebellion. The Hoover Library recreates this problematic scene, a fixture of my childhood.
Future first lady Lou Hoover posing by a canon during the Boxer Rebellion. The Hoover Library recreates this problematic scene, a fixture of my childhood.

I first visited the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in South Boston when my parents were in town. Like most urban dwellers, I didn’t take advantage of local attractions unless people were visiting. And ever since I moved to Boston, I was eager to visit Kennedy’s library, in part because of Hoover’s. The Hoover museum is a carefully curated response to preordained hostility: people hate Hoover. Hoover caused the Great Depression (right?). He did nothing while people lost their savings, their jobs, their homes (right?). The curators offer a humble but firm apologia, something to do with foreign aid and Russia and being a wise old man in Manhattan. Even if you think Hoover was a bad president, says the library, Hoover was still a pretty good guy. Fine. I knew that. Now I wanted to see a library dedicated to a beloved president, someone who managed to squeeze lots of exciting shit (including loads of sex and near-apocalyptic disasters) into three short years! What must his library be like?!

By the end of my day at the JFK library, I had really learned something: Hoover’s library is kind of awesome.

Hoover’s was the first of the now thirteen presidential libraries affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). As far as I know, it is the only presidential museum whose curators operate under the assumption that their president was a failure. It would be hard to do otherwise. Everyone hated Hoover, even Iowans [1]. He’s the only president to have a symbol of nomadic poverty named after him. When critics wish to accuse a sitting president of total incompetency, they frequently invoke Hoover (sometimes idiotically). During their end-of-the-century coverage, Time magazine ranked Hoover as the worst president of the 20th century.

And who could object?

Herbert Hoover's childhood meetinghouse. Only two U.S. presidents have been Quakers: Hoover and Nixon. Takeaway: if you're a Quaker, don't become president.
Herbert Hoover’s childhood meetinghouse. Only two U.S. presidents have been Quakers: Hoover and Nixon. Takeaway: if you’re a Quaker, don’t become president.

Even if you take a sympathetic view of the man and his presidency – Hoover was an unparalleled philanthropist! he was a great statesman! he opposed Wall Street corruption throughout the 1920s! he began implementing New Deal-style reforms as early as 1929! the Great Depression was mostly Harding and Coolidge’s fault! any incumbent (even a composite of Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Harriet Tubman) would have lost in 1932! – even granting all that, you have to admit, Hoover was the worst.

Gore Vidal once suggested that ex-presidents be given the emeritus title “Librarian” (an ironic title, Vidal added, when you consider Americans’ general disinterest in reading). And if, for reasons perverse and unknown to me, you wanted to look inside the brains of a president’s most ardent supporters, to see what they see, you could do worse than visit a presidential library. Let’s begin with the real estate: Hoover’s library is situated at the end of a long driveway, an easy-to-miss turn off an old highway. The library is tucked away among trees. As anyone anywhere will tell you, Iowa is not a heavily forested state. I’m sure someone decided that trees would add shade and beauty to the grounds, but they only make the library seem deliberately hidden. The flat ’60s-style architecture, the “living history” vibe of the outdoor exhibits, the mannequins, the retro arcade-style buttons you push to watch videos produced in 1985: everything about the library feels antiquated.

The Kennedy library, by contrast, towers confidently at the edge of a peninsula it shares with the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a great white slab jutting out over the harbor, the bay, the ocean (no need to imagine a link between Boston and the rest of the world).

Herbert Hoover Library and Museum
Herbert Hoover Library and Museum

Only a jerk would point out the absurdity of the cones and pyramids; the spheres that abruptly give way to sharp angles; the awkward slabs of concrete juxtaposed with walls of glass; the wide, empty stairs; and the hollow square detailing (rendered, again, in concrete); all of which reek of, well, 1979: the year Kennedy’s library was dedicated, the year before his baby brother’s final unsuccessful shot at the big oval, the year before a Hollywood actor matching Kennedy’s charisma would claim his office (properly mandated, and able to survive two full terms). If Hoover’s library feels antiquated, Kennedy’s is merely dated.

Which is worse?

The late ’70s and early ’80s might have been the height of Kennedy nostalgia, when the Kennedy era was becoming historical memory: the moment of malaise, a time when swinging and sex weren’t fun anymore, when assassinations lost their shock value. A yucky time, more Teddy than Jack. This moment, not ’61 or ’63, is fossilized just beneath the surface of what seems, at first glance, a fantastically beautiful building, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Once you’re inside, Kennedy’s museum is curated to reaffirm the love you obviously already have for their man. I expected as much going in. JFK was a popular guy, and I assumed the museum would reflect that. No need for too much dirt, the lewd details: the question of how many women he slept with (Vidal, not the least reliable source, claims it was close to 5,000); the question of how high he was (moderately, but much of the time); the question of his isolationist daddy’s machinations; of Cook County ballot boxes; of dead voters in Texas (what, would you want Nixon to have won?).

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

But I was immediately alarmed by the the Kennedy library’s total and unapologetic adulation of their man. Presidential library museums are inherently propagandistic, I get that. Even the Hoover museum highlights two accomplishments for every terrible decision. What I don’t expect is a slobbery, sometimes defensive, borderline kitschy shrine to a complicated administration. I don’t expect a brazen and unapologetic whitewash of a man who has already been washed whiter than any modern president, a man who has practically been conferred sainthood among American Catholics (I’ve seen haloed JFK portraits on mantels in Dorchester, Dubuque, Denver).

The bulk of the Kennedy library consists of gifts that he and Jackie received from across the (recently decolonizing) world, a virtual bazaar of exotic treasures from steamy climes, all displayed against gaudy late ’70s colors and tones. Jackie’s inauguration day pillbox hat is a major attraction (I admit, it’s cool to see). But whenever raw politics pops up, the museum tips the scales toward the guy who already won. In one strange exhibit, a reconstructed newsroom, ostensibly broadcasting the 1960 election, shows Kennedy leading Nixon in California, Nixon’s home state (which Nixon won in 1960 because, duh). Historically literate visitors will understand that the exhibit represents a single, frozen moment in the evening of November 8 1960 when Kennedy was ahead in many states. For everyone else, the exhibit implies a final Kennedy victory that is much wider than the historical tally.

The "realtime" scoreboard doesn't reflect the razor-thin margin of Kennedy's victory.
The “realtime” scoreboard doesn’t reflect the razor-thin margin of Kennedy’s victory.

The library gives much attention to elections and speeches and pageantry, less to policy. It offers George Wallace (who Kennedy confronted with words, not actions) more space than Vietnam (decidedly fewer words, way more action). The library determined that papers from Robert F. Kennedy’s law school career and the Bay of Pigs deserve roughly equal time. The Cuban missile crisis is summed up in a single blurry, fragmented, incoherent documentary (that, in retrospect, probably captures with relative accuracy Kennedy’s own narcotized experience of those thirteen days).

After some genuinely moving footage of JFK in Ireland, you pass through a bizarre, unlit hallway: the assassination. “Is that it?” my dad asked, not merely of the assassination but of the entire museum. If the curators deliberately designed such a strange and anti-climatic ending to convey the anticlimax that Lee Harvey wrought, well, mission sorta accomplished. Instead of leaving with the horrific drama of Dealey Plaza – the abrupt end of a potentially great presidency – you leave feeling unsatisfied, confused, like you missed something. As you exit, you walk through an enormous glass room with a gorgeous view of the harbor. Look up, and you realize you’re standing under a comically large American flag. You’re unsure of what it’s supposed to mean.

Of course, a library is much more than a museum. I enjoy the Kennedy Library Forums and appreciate their availability online, even if the audience was unnecessarily cold to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, and unbearably snobby toward his subject, after Caro uttered a few mild criticisms of JFK. In 2011, Christopher Hitchens confirmed my suspicion that, of the presidential libraries, Kennedy’s “is…renowned among presidential and other scholars as the most obstructive and politicized of the lot.”[2]

Flag at the end of the Kennedy Library Museum
Flag at the end of the Kennedy Library Museum

But my interest in the Hoover and Kennedy libraries runs much deeper than politics or history or scholarship. The libraries belong to the places I’m from; they represent those places; they exude the attitudes and qualities I associate with those places, or that I project onto them from myself. Iowa: understated, apologetic, ashamed, even when you’re blameless. Boston: overstated, defensive, sour, even when you’re winning.

And Kennedy is always winning. Even the scandals – sex with celebrities! stoned into a stupor at cabinet meetings! erotic waterboarding in the bathtub! all while moving nuclear missiles around the planet as if he were planning the final turns of a high-stakes, to-scale game of Risk! – somehow that all adds to his mystique!

And on top of that, on top of all of that, he gets shot in the head at the height of his popularity. And his killer, who was never quite exactly totally witnessed killing the president, is shot dead before any confession or trial, rendering the circumstances of the assassination technically indeterminable and therefore interesting to everyone forever. Bad for the nation, absolutely. Horrific and traumatizing for the president’s family, unquestionably. But good for his legacy? Do I even have to answer that?

What more could a dead president ask for?

One thing, apparently: a library that insists nary a single bad word was ever spoke about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A museum that ignores his illnesses, his distracting sexual appetites, his insecurities, his shortcomings, even the possibility that he ever made a non-adorable mistake. A museum that refuses to acknowledge the obvious: that for decades, the assassination clouded our ability to assess John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

Postscript

November 22, 1963, was one of the most painful and frightening moments in modern U.S. history. The murder of any head of state is terrifying; assassinations can destabilize entire nations. In the United States, Kennedy’s death symbolically inaugurated an era of major cultural change that was compounded by social unrest, political realignments, painful economic adjustments, failed presidencies, and all manner of violence. We call this period “the Sixties,” but it arguably lasted well into the early 1980s [3].

Is Kennedy responsible for these changes? Absolutely not. Did his assassination provoke them? No. Could he have tempered the mood, prevented some of the violence? I don’t think so.

So why do I believe John F. Kennedy was the worst president of the 20th century? Because of the sex? The corruption? The deceit? The drugs? The cockiness? The recklessness? The policies? The posturing with Khrushchev? The mystique? Yes to all of the above, and more. I’ll try to dispense with the personality issues in my next post and then move on to more “substantive” critiques. But there’s substance in the seedy details; no other president on so many occasions endangered the welfare of the United States for a quickie.

In 2013, John F. Kennedy is no longer a deific figure. I don’t get any points for swinging at his legacy, nor can I label myself a clear-eyed contrarian for dismissing him. I will, however, attempt to heighten the discourse surrounding JFK from adulation (its former state) and nuance (its current state) to a shrill (my state). The vulgar consensus (i.e., whatever Doris Kearns Goodwin is saying these days) is that John F. Kennedy was a charismatic, complicated, and ultimately flawed president [4]. Some would add that JFK could have been  a great president if he had lived. In the face of this hardening and well-supported consensus, I will argue that JFK was charismatic, complicated, flawed, and also the worst president of the 20th century, because I want to raise the stakes of the debate and because I believe it.

In the next installment: Seymour Hersh, Sex, the ’90s, Sex, What Happens in Vienna Stays in Vienna, Sex

***

[/1] Hoover lost Iowa and forty-one other states in the 1932 election. The rural Midwest had not benefited from the roaring 1920s, which boosted major urban centers. After a post-war boom in 1918, agribusiness contracted throughout the ‘20s. The Great Depression obliterated Iowa’s already weak economy. By 1932, the year of Hoover’s reelection campaign, five percent of all Iowa farms fell into foreclosure. Des Moines declared a moratorium on land seizures. This all before the Dust Bowl struck.

[/2] Even the notorious Nixon library, once owned and operated by Nixon’s own foundation, handed its archives and facilities over to the NARA in 2007, making itself respectable to visitors and scholars alike.

[/3] The cover of Time‘s April 1981 issue asks, in response to Reagan’s near-assassination, “Can it never be stopped?” Reagan’s brush with death seemed part of an historical continuity: a plot to shoot President Nixon morphed into the shooting of presidential candidate George Wallace. President Ford came face-to-face with not one but two would-be shooters during his short tenure. But after Reagan, thirty years passed before another national politician was shot (Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Gifford in 2011).

[/4] We’re going through quite a Lyndon Johnson revival these days, what with the Caro biographies and Lee Daniels’s The Butler. LBJ is the most favorably represented president in that film – he also gets the last line.

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