A president of consequence – Felix M Larkin on reassessing Kennedy

An Irishman’s Diary

The inscription on the plaque alongside the stark memorial to President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas – the city where he was assassinated – begins with these words: "The joy and excitement of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life belonged to all men. So did the pain and sorrow of his death."

These are good and valid sentiments, which those of us who remember his short period in office – sometimes romanticised as “Camelot on the Potomac” – would certainly endorse.

With the passage of time, however, Kennedy is ceasing to be part of living memory and passing into history. So now is perhaps an appropriate moment to ask in a serious way just how good a president was he. This is the question I address in an essay in a new book published by Irish Academic Press, From Whence I Came: the Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, edited by Brian Murphy and Donnacha Ó Beacháin.

The 15 essays in this volume have their origin in papers given at the Kennedy Summer School held annually in New Ross, Co Wexford, since 2012 (though not in 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic).


In judging Kennedy, the first consideration is that he was a transformative president, someone who changed the character of the US presidency. That is one of the criteria that historians use in assessing the significance of individual presidents.

He was the first president born in the 20th century, the first Roman Catholic, the first of the men who actually did the fighting on the ground in the second World War to become president and the first president to master the medium of television and use it effectively - and he was the youngest man ever elected president. All these factors make him at least a notable president.

Also relevant to any assessment are his skills in oratory and his undoubted charisma. The greatest presidents are remembered as much for their rhetoric – their memorable phrases – as for their deeds, and Kennedy’s best speeches stand comparison with those of any president before or after him.

Kennedy’s charisma was legendary, and the combination of his rhetoric and charisma enabled Kennedy to capture the imagination and idealism of the American people as few other presidents have done.

His most substantial achievements were in the field of foreign policy. Notwithstanding failures at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, he rose to the challenge of Soviet pressure both in Berlin and during the Cuban missile crisis – and the Soviets backed down, defeats from which arguably they never recovered. It was a turning point, the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

There then followed the partial nuclear weapons test ban treaty, covering tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. There was a very real fear of nuclear Armageddon in the late 1950s and early 1960s. JFK defused that threat, and left the world a safer place. It is his greatest legacy.

Kennedy’s achievements on the domestic front were less spectacular.

He was a politician of the centre – famously describing himself as an “idealist without illusions”.

Like President Obama more recently, he had great difficulty in building a political consensus with the US Congress. Legislative gridlock prevented every one of Kennedy's major domestic initiatives from becoming law during his lifetime.

In particular, Kennedy is often criticised for the delay in acting to advance civil rights for black Americans. This was a difficult issue for him, for he knew that any civil rights measure would alienate the support of the southern states – the former states of the Confederacy, hitherto solidly Democratic in politics – and so jeopardise his chances of re-election in 1964.

Nevertheless, in June 1963 he took decisive action – spurred into action by a crisis over the admission of black students to the University of Alabama. He made a memorable speech, and followed up his rhetoric with draft legislation. This became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

Kennedy’s record as president was, therefore, a positive one. He was a significant president – a president of consequence – who made a difference for the better and might have been among the greatest but for the brevity of his time in office.

It is right that his memory should be honoured, and this is the spirit in which the Kennedy Summer School gathers in the town of New Ross from whence his great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, left.