Skip to main content

See also:

JFK he ain't: Ronald Reagan is no Jack Kennedy

JFK
JFK
public domain via the U.S. federal government

When it comes to the modern era in politics, both political parties seem to have their standard bearer, their hero, their icon who they hold up as the be all and end all for what their party stands for. For conservatives and Republicans, no one fits that bill better than President Ronald Reagan. For liberals and Democrats, John F. Kennedy is the one who they hold high. While Republicans love to wear the Reagan name as a badge of honor, history shows he's no Jack Kennedy.

When Ronald Reagan first set foot into the political area, many shook their heads and laughed. After all, Reagan was a B-movie actor who did commercials on the side, so the speculation was understandable. Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild and was even a spokesman for G.E., General Electric. Originally a registered Democrat and proud union member, Reagan jumped ship in the late 1950s and became a Republican. After giving a speech that was considered a huge success in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy, Reagan was tapped as the next big thing. Reagan ran, won and became the governor of California, a job he held from 1967 to 1975. Though controversial, Reagan was popular with conservatives and even ran for president in 1968 and 1976, but was unsuccessful. For Reagan, the third time was the charm and he won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency in 1980.

For John F. Kennedy, his road to the White House was quite different. Kennedy was born into a wealthy political family. The son of Joe and Rose Kennedy, the man known as "Jack" to his friends seemed to be on the road to success from the get go. Joe Kennedy was the first Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and was the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 until late 1940, putting politics into the pedigree for the Kennedy family. Joe's son Jack wasn't the first choice for family success, but rather his older brother Joe Jr. After Joe Jr. was killed during World War 2, Jack was next in line. John F. Kennedy attended The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, a private high school before moving on to Harvard, where his senior thesis "Appeasement in Munich", became a best seller under the title "Why England Slept." Kennedy attempted to join the Army but was disqualified for medical reasons. After convincing his father of his desire to serve, Joe was able to pull strings and got the younger Kennedy into the United States Navy.

After Kennedy's boat, the PT-109, was attacked by a Japanese destroyer in 1943, Kennedy's back was badly injured and he was honorably discharged two years later in 1945. This was when Kennedy's political career began. John F. Kennedy ran and won a seat in the 11th Congressional district in Massachusetts and served in the House until 1952, when he "upgraded" to the Senate following a defeat of incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge II.

Only four years later, Kennedy was nominated to become the Vice President on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson, but finished second. Fast forward to the 1960 presidential election and John F. Kennedy fought a hard battle with Republican nominee Richard Nixon, and won in one of the closest races in history.

Both Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy took different paths to the White House, but in the end, they both got there. What they did while they were in the White House are two different stories. It's important to note while Ronald Reagan has a body of work of two full terms in office, Kennedy's time was cut short before he was able to finish his first term. To compare the two you have to look at what they accomplished, the effect it has had on the country, then and now, and the legacy they both have left.

Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy both knew the economy was important, but the approach they both took was different. Reagan believed in the "supply side" economic theory, commonly known as "Reaganomics." The idea that if you cut taxes drastically on the rich, the wealth would in turn "trickle down" on the rest of the country in the form of private sector jobs. With this theory in place, social services and other federal programs could be cut, with the losses made up theoretically in the private sector. Unfortunately, when reality hit, the jobs didn't pop up like Reagan promised. Unemployment was a roller coaster under Reagan, peeking at nearly 11 percent in his first term. The unemployment rate did drop off as the years went on, but his tax cuts led to a national debt that tripled to nearly $3 trillion by the time Reagan left office and set in motion the outsourcing of jobs that the country still deals with today.

One thing Reagan and Kennedy had in common was taxes, which Kennedy did slash in the early 1960s. The difference? Kennedy took the top tax rate of 91 percent and trimmed it to 71 percent. Reagan, on the other hand, took that 70 percent rate and hacked away at it until it dropped to 28 percent. Kennedy knew, that at times, it was important to spend money to make money. The country had gone through two recessions in three years when Kennedy took office and something needed to be done about it. In 1962, Kennedy presided over the first government budget to top the $100 billion mark by loosening monetary policy to keep interest rates down.

According to the United States Department of Commerce, GDP expanded by an average of 5.5 percent from early 1961 to late 1963, compared to an average growth of only 2.2% during the Eisenhower administration. During the last year Eisenhower was in office, GDP actually declined by 1 percent, leading into Kennedy's first year in office. The United States Department of Commerce through the Census Bureau shows that with inflation holding steady and unemployment dropping, the production in the industrial industry increased by 15 percent, while automobile sales jumped by 40 percent.

When looking at social issues and civil rights, the debate is a non starter. Though only in office for three years, Kennedy was a beacon of hope for supporters of the civil rights movement. One of the most famous of all his civil rights achievements was in 1963 when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from attending the University of Alabama. Kennedy stood tall, sending Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the Alabama National Guard to the scene to ensure the students receive proper entry into the school. Later that evening, Kennedy gave a speech on civil rights that set in motion future legislation to be passed. Kennedy also signed multiple executive orders including Executive Order 10925 and Executive Order 11063, which aimed at preventing racial discrimination in the workplace and federally supported housing developments. Kennedy was also a strong supporter of women's rights, and signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 into law on June 10, 1963.

Reagan's actions on civil rights were somewhat different. Maybe it was his strong support for the apartheid regime in South Africa that got him off on the wrong track. It could be Reagan's famed quote of "welfare queens" when describing those who receive government benefits, or his inability to even mention the existence of AIDS until the final days of his presidency. Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, using the excuse that the Fourteenth Amendment was enough protection for women in the first place. After President Lyndon Johnson singed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both which were pushed by President Kennedy before his death, were opposed by Ronald Reagan. The excuse Reagan gave this time was that it interfered with the civil rights of business and property owners. Reagan would stand firm on the issue, saying that he was in no way a racist, but rather a supporter of states rights. Reagan even opposed making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday, but was forced to sign it into law after overwhelming support in Congress could override his veto.

When it comes to foreign policy, both had their hits and misses, but Kennedy showed how you can learn from your mistakes to better yourself as a president and man. Kennedy's first big challenge as president came on April 17, 1961, in what would be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite his gut feeling, Kennedy listened to advisers left over from the Eisenhower administration and sent the military into Cuba in an attempt to over throw their dictator, Fidel Castro. Kennedy's team swore that Castro would not be expecting the invasion, but they were wrong. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster and was the first national stain on the Kennedy presidency. Kennedy knew he had to bounce back to be an effective leader and did so in what history calls the Cuban Missile Crisis. After Russian missiles were detected in Cuba aimed at the United States, Kennedy took notice. Though many advised military action, Kennedy this time listened to his gut and decided to propose a military blockade, or "quarantine" as it would be called. After 13 days of waiting, the Russians agreed to back their missiles out of Cuba, while the U.S. removed theirs from Turkey. A global crisis and nightmare was avoided.

Kennedy learned from his previous mistakes and made sure to improve the next time out. Ronald Reagan wasn't so lucky. When thinking of Ronald Reagan and foreign policy, only one event comes to mind. The Iran-Contra scandal. Examiner.com reports.

"In November of 1986, the story leaked that senior officials within the Reagan administration were secretly negotiating the sale of arms to Iran with hopes that the deal would result in the release of seven Americans being held hostage by a rebel group with ties to Iran. If the deal went according to plan, Israel would send weapons to Iran for the United States who would then restock Israel and receive the Israeli payment. The Iranian recipients gave their word that they would help release the hostages."

After the story broke, Reagan denied a trade of arms for hostages, but did admit that a weapons transfer took place. There were a total of 11 convictions which were all vacated on appeal or pardoned by the end of the George H.W Bush presidency over the next six years.

No matter whether it's social issues, civil rights, the economy, or foreign policy, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan remain two of the most influential presidents in modern history. While John F. Kennedy's premature death does lend to his mystique, the reality is that the legacy left by Kennedy is one filled with more hope and promise than what was left by "The Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan.