By Brent Budowsky - 12/08/09 01:22 AM EST
John F. Kennedy should join the list of American presidents who achieved true historical greatness not merely for what he said, or how well he said it, but for what he did, and the historic legacy he left.
Imagine the Democratic Party and progressive cause today if John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were with us now, as elder statesmen!
JFK reached presidential greatness by moving game-changing issues to the forefront of the national and global agenda, through eloquence that rallied the nation and inspired the world, policies that created institutions of power that still do great good and actions that gave meaning and substance to his words. For Kennedy, words were not a substitute for results, but a weapon to achieve them.
When JFK put the political and moral power of the presidency behind civil rights, he knew he endangered his electoral votes from strong Democratic Southern states. Kennedy was willing to bear the burden and pay the price. By doing do he set loose forces that became sweeping tides for civil rights, human rights and women’s rights that cascaded around the world and shook the foundation of tyrants from the Politburo in Moscow to segregationists in Mississippi.
Kennedy screwed up at the Bay of Pigs. Unlike politicians today, he took full responsibility. Unlike certain presidents, he learned from his mistakes and turned them into future triumphs.
The Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy that power and strength must be accompanied by judgment and wisdom, and that most of a president’s advisers can be dead wrong, which is why the president is the president, not them.
Kennedy’s failure at the Bay of Pigs led to his triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a majority of his advisers favored actions that could have led to World War III and ended life on earth. John and Robert Kennedy rejected bad advice. They removed the missiles from Cuba. The world survived.
From the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy came to fully appreciate the danger of nuclear extermination. He began a campaign for nuclear arms control, from the test ban treaty to the world-changing debate he inaugurated at American University.
Kennedy didn’t merely inspire the young to vote, he called on them to serve in the military and created programs for them to help the poor in America and the hungry abroad.
Kennedy believed a rising economic tide should lift all boats, that young people should lift themselves through learning while seniors should be protected through Medicare, that America should lift itself to the moon while excellence in the arts enriched our spirit. He acted to make things happen.
John Kennedy was not the perfect man. No president stands in the pantheon with Washington and Lincoln. But Kennedy should be ranked among presidents who achieved historical greatness. From his thousand days came actions, programs, ideas and results that transformed his times and will make the world better long past ours.
Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.