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JFK: a very popular president


John Fitzgerald Kennedy would have been 75 today. It is hard to realize that he has been dead for 29 years -- a period longer than that of his whole adult life.

History has not been kind to his presidency. Several rankings by historians and political scientists in the 1980s, after passage of enough time from 1963 to have some validity, concluded that he was an "average" or "above average" president. Thirteenth or fourteenth out of the 36 through Jimmy Carter. The presidents who immediately preceded him and followed him, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, were both ranked higher.

Of course, JFK served less than three years. He might have done much better given two terms. The American people certainly thought so. They liked him and seemed likely to give him a landslide entry to a second term. His average Gallup Poll "approval rating" for his 1,000 days in office was 70 percent, the second highest of any president since Gallup began the feature. When he was killed, he was at 58 percent and rising after a slump.

Being liked is no small talent by itself. When Oliver Wendell Holmes gave this assessment of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was a compliment: "A second class intellect -- but a first class temperament." (FDR has the highest Gallup overall approval rating -- 75 percent. Dwight Eisenhower was third with 64 percent.) Having a likable president gives a nation confidence in itself. Probably nothing better explains today's political malaise and the improbable rise of Ross Perot than the fact that people don't really like George Bush and Bill Clinton. Both are remarkably well prepared, knowledgeable and dedicated public servants, but . . .

But without being able to deliver what the public wants, they lose support. There is no reservoir of good will, nothing to draw on in hard political times. President Bush's approval ratings were quite high, consistently in the 60 and even 70 percent range, when the nation rallied behind him during and after the gulf war. His approval ratings sank when that glow wore off because, we believe, he has not yet been embraced -- liked -- by the public. Not liking him, they have a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately attitude toward him. This year he has averaged a 42 percent approval rating in the Gallup Poll, declining even as the nation's economy recovers.

A great many Americans seem to be turning from President Bush and Governor Clinton -- and from all traditional politicians -- to Mr. Perot not because they like his philosophy or his programs but because they like him. Whether they will continue to remains to be seen. Based on what we have seen and heard so far this year, and based on what we remember, we must say, at least for now, "Ross, you're no Jack Kennedy."

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