Reassessing presidential legacies: TR, FDR, and JFK

Posted: May 24, 2022 by chrisharper in politics, Uncomfortable Truths
Tags: , , ,

In my months-long deep dive into biographical treatises on U.S. presidents, I found several—Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower—had not gotten their historical due.

I also found several—Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy—whose overrated administrations failed more often than they succeeded. 

Overall, these three presidents greatly expanded the power of the presidency, which until Teddy’s White House had often been subservient to the Congress. Moreover, the trio made citizens far more dependent on the government for their livelihood—an issue that still creates myriad problems today. 

Although Teddy’s reputation has fallen lately because of his racist views, his legacy has other significant failings.

Gary Gerstle, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge, said that Teddy’s economic legacy was a forebearer to the strategies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“If we brought him back, that’s exactly where he would fit on the political spectrum,” he said in 2019 on the 100th anniversary of Teddy’s death.

His presidency gave credibility to the progressive movement, lending the prestige of the White House to welfare legislation and government regulation. His creation of the Bull Moose Party in 1912 undermined the Republican Party, leading to the election of one of the worst presidents in history, Woodrow Wilson.

His cousin Franklin gets high marks for his efforts during World War II, albeit with some caveats. But FDR’s domestic policies created so much dependence on the federal government that his programs hamper many people even now.  

Sidney Milkis, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, summed up the downside of FDR’s reign. 

“Critics have questioned not only his policies and positions but also charged him with centralizing power in his own hands by controlling both the government and the Democratic Party. Many denounced his breaking the no-third-term tradition in 1940. Long after Roosevelt’s death, new lines of attack opened to criticize his policies regarding helping the Jews of Europe, incarcerating Japanese Americans on the West Coast, and opposing anti-lynching legislation,” Milkis wrote. Moreover, FDR’s capitulation at the Yalta Conference in 1945 led to the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe for the next four decades. 

Many FDR supporters argue that he brought the country out of the Depression. But later analyses of his massive spending programs demonstrate that World War II finally created a sound economic footing for the country. 

William E. Leuchtenburg, professor emeritus of the University of North Carolina, wrote that little had changed from 1932 when FDR was first elected to deal with economic issues.

“[I]n the fall of 1937, industrial production fell by 33 percent, national income dropped by 12 percent, and industrial stock prices plummeted by 50 percent. Nearly 4 million people lost their jobs, and the total number of unemployed increased to 11.5 million. 

“World War II, not the New Deal, brought an end to the Great Depression. The war sparked the kind of job creation and massive public and private spending that finally lifted the United States out of its economic doldrums.”

The positive assessment of JFK’s presidency has puzzled me for some time. Simply put, he didn’t do much during his less than three years in office. In his book, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, my former colleague Fred Kempe excoriated Kennedy’s actions during the Bay of Pigs, his inept Vienna summit with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, and his dreadful response to the construction of the Berlin Wall. All these errors, Kempe argued, led Khrushchev to see the United States as weak and encouraged him to try to plant missiles on Cuban soil. Fortunately, JFK handled that showdown relatively well. See

JFK’s sexual antics went unreported by the media until long after his death—as did his many physical ailments and subsequent drug abuse hindered his judgment at times.

I think his legacy has been propped up by my generation’s seminal shared moment of remembering where we were on November 22, 1963. 

  1. Pod Hamp says:

    I was just a youngster when JFK was assassinated, but even as a kid I remember the adulation that has heaped on him at the time. Everyone started renaming facilities after him, schools, streets, airports, space facilities, and so on. Writing songs about him (anyone remember “Abraham, Martin, and John?”) It was a sort of secular sanctification, although as a third-grader I obviously didn’t think of it in those terms. My wife, who grew up at the same time, remembers it the same way, and idolized him for decades. I remember people talking about him as in the top tier of Presidents – right there with Washington and Lincoln. It took several decades for that adulation to start to wear off, although I imagine there are still many Boomer Democrats who see him that way.