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November 28, 2013

Five myths about John F. Kennedy

FAIRFAX, Va. — Most everyone who was alive on Nov. 22, 1963, remembers where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. JFK was the youngest elected U.S. president and the youngest to die. The fascination with him is never-ending: There have been hundreds of books, TV specials and films about his New Frontier, as well as the enduring controversy surrounding his assassination. Let's debunk some of the most pervasive myths.

1. The JFK-Nixon TV debates propelled Kennedy to victory.

The four televised debates were the great innovation of the 1960 presidential race, and Sen. Kennedy's impressive appearance and performance at the first one on Sept. 26 gave his campaign a jolt of energy. But Vice President Richard Nixon stepped up his game in the remaining three, especially the final one on foreign policy, a longtime strength of his.

While polls were much less frequent in 1960 than today, Gallup has enough data to show that the JFK-Nixon matchup was close throughout. From mid-August onward, the candidates were essentially tied, before and after the debates. Any boost Kennedy got from the first debate disappeared before Election Day.

President Dwight Eisenhower, still quite popular, campaigned for Nixon in the campaign's closing days, contributing to the photo finish in the popular vote: 49.72 percent for Kennedy, 49.55 percent for Nixon; out of about 69 million votes cast, JFK won by about 119,000. Sure, the debates were memorable and precedent-setting, but they barely moved the election needle.

2. JFK was a liberal president.

This view is widely held today, both because Kennedy is now associated with the civil rights movement and because his legacy is lumped together with those of his late brothers, the much more liberal Bobby and Ted. (The brothers followed Jack's moderate lead while he lived, but both became more openly progressive later on.) In reality, JFK was a cautious, conservative chief executive, mindful of his 1964 reelection bid after the squeaker of 1960. He was fiscally conservative, careful about spending and deficits, and sponsored an across-the-board tax cut that became President Ronald Reagan's model for his 1981 tax cut.

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