09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Best Kennedy Legacy

I am honored and proud to have written an upcoming book with the incomparable, indefatigable and relentless Helen Thomas. With no reservations we concluded that John F. Kennedy was the best of our presidents in recent times. Here's what we wrote:

"Why do we say John Kennedy was our best president? Sure, there is a case to be made for others. But we make a fine distinction here between our best and our greatest presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt.

It was not just that Kennedy put the nation on a path toward racial harmony -- one that Lyndon Johnson advanced with the passage of civil rights legislation. It was not just that Kennedy and his elegant wife, Jackie, opened the doors of the White House to artists, musicians and other icons of our culture. It was not just that JFK was telegenic at the dawn of the television age.

Kennedy knew how to embody, nourish and advance what it means to be an American. The rest of the world looked at Kennedy and saw all Americans in a different way. They saw that America was the future, that our Democracy and respect for civil rights was a path for all nations to follow willingly -- and not just because we had the most weapons.

At a time when the threat of nuclear war was real and among us, Kennedy initiated the idea of negotiating treaties to curb the proliferation of weapons. Until then, world history had been all about building new generations of weapons and using them. For the first time, leaders of great powers stepped back from the brink and broke the vicious cycle.

Plenty of weapons have been made and used since, but Kennedy created an ethos among nations that, while there have been lapses, continues to this day. That next generation of weaponry, the massively destructive powers of nuclear bombs, remained sheathed for the generation that followed him.

Kennedy put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Let us hope and pray that it stays there. In announcing a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union in 1963, Kennedy said it best, that the peace he sought was 'not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.'

To complement the hard bargaining with our enemies, Kennedy created the Peace Corps, which is still a fixture in our global reach. He understood that the world needed more than our military power to follow our lead. He called upon young people to enlist for a different tour of duty, to bring food, medicine and education to impoverished nations.

For such a young man and a new president, Kennedy was noticeably cool under pressure. During the Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union's installation of bombs in our neighborhood sparked fears of a nuclear conflict, Kennedy managed the challenge to a peaceful resolution.

After Kennedy's assassination, then-President Johnson talked to reporters about what he had observed during JFK's marathon White House meetings to handle the Cuban missile crisis. There were many Washington veterans present, some who had been serving in powerful jobs when Kennedy was a teenager. But America had never faced such a direct threat to its security so close to our shores and many of the old pros were unsure about what to do. 'Kennedy was the coolest man in the room,' Johnson said. 'And he had his thumb on the nuclear button.'

Since Kennedy was in office, much has been written to denigrate his personal life. The press corps certainly looked the other way during his tenure, choosing not to pursue rumors about affairs in keeping with the tradition of his times that politicians' private lives were out of bounds unless they clearly affected service to their country. Such a quaint rule is long gone, and today Kennedy would not enjoy that zone of privacy.

Despite any personal failings, Kennedy's legacy as a visionary leader is intact. It is best symbolized by inspiring the country to walk on the moon. But it was more than a symbol.

Kennedy's challenge to send astronauts to the moon, which was met in less than the ten years he set forth, ushered in an era of technological advance that prepared the nation for the computer age. While born in the need to compete with the Soviets in space, going to the moon turned a corner at just the right moment in history.

Nations throughout history perish or flourish based upon how well they progress into a new age. America mastered the industrial age in the early 20th Century and, thanks to Kennedy's appreciation for the future of science, we mastered the technological age.

This is what our best presidents do. They prod us forward. They nourish our best instincts. They do not just lead our government. They lead us, make us better and, as a result, make us a stronger country."

-- Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do, by Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford (Coming in October from Scribner)