Fact, Democrats, and the JFK Legend

legThe mythologizing of John F. Kennedy in the 50 years since his death has verified the adage in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The JFK legend recycled all these years is of a liberal icon, the glamorous martyr whose violent death has validated and sanctified big government, redistributive economic polices, and quasi-pacifist internationalism. The facts, however, belie this myth, which also obscures the true significance of JFK’s brief administration.

In reality, Kennedy was not a liberal in today’s sense of the word, but a conservative Democrat, a Cold-War warrior and tax-cutter, as documented by Ira Stoll in JFK, Conservative. Far from the civil rights saint portrayed in the legend, his support for civil rights legislation was lukewarm, driven by the momentum for desegregation started before him by Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces, and codified by Eisenhower in the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights acts, the first civil rights legislation since 1875. In fact, Kennedy believed that over-hasty progress on civil rights would alienate the conservative Southern wing of the Democrats. That’s why he advised Martin Luther King against his groundbreaking March on Washington in August of 1963, and put little effort into passing additional civil rights legislation.

Nor was Kennedy a tax-and-spend liberal. The Revenue Act of 1964, one of Kennedy’s economic goals he proposed before his assassination, cut tax rates by 20% across the board, based on an argument redolent of the much-derided “supply-side” economics promoted by Ronald Reagan. As Kennedy said in a 1962 speech, “The final and best means of strengthening demand among consumers and business is to reduce the burden on private income and the deterrents to private initiative which are imposed by our present tax system . . . I am not talking about a ‘quickie’ or a temporary tax cut, which would be more appropriate if a recession were imminent. Nor am I talking about giving the economy a mere shot in the arm, to ease some temporary complaint. I am talking about the accumulated evidence of the last 5 years that our present tax system . . . exerts too heavy a drag on growth in peace time; that it siphons out of the private economy too large a share of personal and business purchasing power; that it reduces the financial incentives for personal effort, investment, and risk-taking.”

Similarly, despite attempts to claim Kennedy as a promoter of détente and coexistence with the Soviet Union, he was hawkish on confronting the Russians, vowing in his inaugural address, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” In his famous speech in Berlin on June 26, 1963, he sounded like liberal bogeyman Ronald Reagan. “There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin,” Kennedy orated to a million Germans. He continued, “There are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress . . . Let them come to Berlin.” He taunted the Russians by saying that democratic citizens “have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” And he called communism “an offence not only against history but an offense against humanity.” When Ronald Reagan spoke in these terms, the liberal admirers of Kennedy called him a war-mongering simpleton.

Nor does the historical record support the view that Kennedy intended to reduce U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In his brief tenure he increased U.S. advisors from 900 to 16,000, which makes the reduction of a 1000 before his death less impressive. There is nothing in his Cold War hawkishness to think he would unilaterally surrender in a geopolitical duel with the Soviet Union and China––not when he fomented rebellion in Cuba and plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro, or when he took this country to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile crisis over weapons that did not substantially alter the strategic nuclear balance.

Finally, Kennedy’s “big government” initiatives like the Peace Corps and the program to send a man to the moon within a decade were subordinated to his Cold War aims. Even desegregation was in part a response to the negative effect on the U.S.’s image as a bastion of freedom and equality compared to the oppressive Soviet Union. As the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland writes, “He believed the Peace Corps program would win back some of that lost public-relations ground in those parts of the globe. Kennedy didn’t care about space exploration, but instead viewed the moon program through the lens of U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War.” To make Kennedy a pacifist-leaning internationalist requires long residence in the Oliver Stone fever-swamps.

As a result of this legend, many today believe that JFK was one of the best presidents in history, as routinely asserted in presidential popularity polls that consistently put him in the top 10, and occasionally rank him first or second. Once again, the facts don’t support this estimation. As Joseph Epstein wrote recently, “John F. Kennedy turned out to be a most mediocre president. He was at best hesitant in his support of the civil rights movement, the clearest moral event of the second half of the twentieth century. Nor did he pass any domestic legislation of major importance. In foreign policy, he made a great mess of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and with a less than ept bit of brinksmanship brought the Soviet Union and the United States as close to nuclear war as they ever got. He was the man who first put the American toe in the swamp of Vietnam, though his successor Lyndon Johnson would take the heat of liberal history for that misbegotten war.” Epstein could have mentioned as well the disastrous decision to remove South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, which damaged the counterinsurgency efforts against the Viet Cong guerrillas and cadres. We can quibble with some parts of Epstein’s evaluation, but the liberal icon of presidential excellence for the most part is made of rhetorical tinsel and greasepaint.

Equally important to dismantling that icon is recognizing the other significant developments that followed the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy was the first modern president whose image, constructed from the new media of mass communication like television and monthly magazines like Life, was more important than his thin record of accomplishment. The mythmaking began even before his death, with those glossy photographs and video footage of the glamorous young president and his stylish bride wafting through “Camelot” and supposedly elevating the intellectual and artistic tenor of the White House. This process accelerated after his assassination, when courtiers like Ted Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote hagiographies that created the image forever frozen by Kennedy’s gruesome death, forever captured on Abraham Zapruder’s 8-millimeter footage. Movies and television shows over the last half-century have repeated and reinforced this sentimental myth, gliding over Kennedy’s political failures and sexual peccadillos. Indeed, the celebrity legend has become historical fact. But the larger legacy of this mythmaking is that now, fabricated image and slick marketing (see Scott Thomas’s Designing Obama) have replaced experience and knowledge in qualifying someone for the presidency, as the current occupant of the White House demonstrates. Moreover, the Kennedy myth has validated the imperial presidency in which manufactured charisma and glamour justify violating the Constitution’s separation of powers––once more illustrated by Barack Obama.

More important, the true record of Kennedy’s political beliefs stands as a marker for judging just how far left the contemporary Democratic Party has veered. Though Kennedy was a mediocre president, he was still a conventional centrist and anti-communist Democrat. But since 1968, the party of Kennedy has transformed itself from a classical liberal party of individual rights, citizen autonomy, and personal freedom, to a left-wing party that endorses an intrusive, patronizing Leviathan state financed by punitive tax rates on producers of growth, and sold to the people with class-warfare rhetoric evocative of Pravda and sweetened with metastasizing character-eroding entitlement transfers. Rather than a defender of the First Amendment’s rights to free speech and religion, it has institutionalized censorship in hate-speech and sexual harassment laws, and declared war on Christianity and Judaism and attempted to drive those faiths from the public square––excluding of course Islam, the faith of most of the terrorist murderers active across the globe. Instead of championing entrepreneurship and innovation, it has favored economic policies and coercive regulatory regimes that stifle both. And it has become the party of invidious racialist grievance politics that enriches hustlers like Al Sharpton while ignoring the ongoing destruction of black people in blue-state inner cities, even as it transforms a once-noble civil rights movement into a divisive grievance industry.

Worst of all, contrary to Kennedy’s robust, if sometimes inept, foreign policy that recognized the true nature of the communist enemy and actively opposed its adventurism, the Democrats are now a crypto-pacifist party of appeasement, retreat, apology, and subordination of American sovereignty to feckless and incompetent internationalist outfits like the U.N. and the European Court of Justice. Instead of seeing a strong, confident America as a power for good in the world and an enabler of freedom and justice, the Democratic Party considers America as complicit in all the crimes and oppression troubling the planet, reducing America’s global role to “a partner mindful of his own imperfections,” as Obama said, no more exceptional than any other country.

Obama, of course, embodies perfectly the degeneration of the Democratic Party, and so more than anything else marks how far it has fallen from the beliefs of JFK. For Democrats today to claim John Kennedy as one of their own is not just a violation of historical fact, but a shameful masking of their own radicalism.

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  • winstons

    JFK, like FDR, is mythologized by the Leftist press….JFK was one of our worst presidents: he legalized public employee unions (a monster that will devour the Republic) and he ramped up the unwinnable Vietnam war that ended up in needlessly killing or maiming tens of thousands of young men.

  • winstons

    JFK, like FDR, is mythologized by the Leftist press….JFK was one of our worst presidents: he legalized public employee unions (a monster that will devour the Republic) and he ramped up the unwinnable Vietnam war that ended up in needlessly killing or maiming tens of thousands of young men.

  • winstons

    Just more baloney to clean up the “legacy” of JFK, sort of like O. Stone.

  • winstons

    Very well said…thanks.

  • Texas Patriot

    Kennedy was a conservative who happened to be a Democrat. Oliver Stone got caught in the political quagmire of Vietnam and became a Leftist filmmaker.

    Kennedy’s assassination destroyed any chance that his legacy would be what he originally intended. Leftists claim him, and conservatives claim him.

    From my standpoint there was a lot more right than wrong about John Kennedy.


  • http://historyscoper.com/ T.L. Winslow

    Duh, I find it hard to believe that if JFK lived he’d have stayed as conservative as he was, and gone Republican and joined Nixon :) Actually it’s pretty unpalatable to think of JFK living another 40 years, what a square peg in a round hole, nobody wants him, somebody should shoot him, oh they did :) Yes, the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance came out in 1962, along with the Manchurian Candidate, just in time to give somebody ideas, I wonder who? I don’t think moron Oswald ever saw either one of them, but I’ll bet LBJ at least saw the first one, the one where a hidden shooter kills somebody in the way of another person’s political rise :) And I know the CIA saw the second one, gotta go, 15 minutes could save you, well, you know :)

    Nobody should publish anything more about JFK without scoping him with my cool free JFKScope, the best ever made, er, marshaling all key facts and theories in concentrated form, with hyperlinks included, at tinyurl.com/jfkscope

    • tagalog

      There is no way that JFK would have aligned himself with the politics of a political party that endorsed Richard Nixon for almost eight years.

      • Chuck

        You’re right, but maybe he should have.

  • edgineer

    Any critical analysis of the JFK assassination based on the circumstantial evidence always results in one conclusion. JFK was murdered by his own party because he refused to carry out expansion of federal power and he ignored the congress in the fight against Communism.

  • cheechakos

    He had good speech writers.His daddy only bought the best


    G-D Bless LBJ!


    Say p u s s y b o y,

  • George Clark

    ‘I’ll have those n*****s voting Democratic for the next 200 years.’ That sort of Neanderthal racist hill-country Texan redneck?

    • tagalog

      Yeah, like that senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, another Democrat from the party that blacks are fanatically loyal to.

      What’s more significant, LBJ making a racist remark or insuring the passage of the most important antidiscrimination law in the past 150 years?

      • .

        LBJ passed the Civil Rights bill to ensure power for his party.

        He passed the right bill for the wrong reasons. the reasoning behind such an action does not redound to the individual in such a case.

        And as we all know here at FPM, if Republicans had not voted for the bill in greater percentages than the Democrats it would not have got done.

        • tagalog

          LBJ, President as he was in 1964, went out if his way to see it pass through Congress. He may have made racist remarks but his heart was in the right place on civil rights.

          Remember, he was the President who brought the preferential treatment form of affirmative action into the arena of anti-discrimination law by making his “built-in headwinds” speech. He also was the mind behind the War on Poverty, which, despite its misguided and ineffectual nature, was intended to assist the poor, particularly blacks, in entering the mainstream.

          LBJ was not just interested in power for his party. His party was mainly opposed to equality and assistance for blacks.

          • Drakken

            LBJ was a disaster for this country. The Constitution is the final arbitrator of all things, the uncivil rights act usurped it.

          • tagalog

            The Constitution is unquestionably NOT the final arbiter of all things. The Constitution is made by the People, who are the arbiter of all things. Even if you can argue that the Constitution controls things, it most certainly does NOT control ALL things; it only controls the things that are mentioned in it. For example, the rights not provided for in the Constitution are reserved to the People. We don’t need the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to know that.

            The Fourteenth Amendment is what usurped the Constitution. Although there are many reasons why the United States has wobbled, the Fourteenth Amendment and the incorporation doctrine is near the heart of the matter. Giving up liberty in exchange for equality of result didn’t help things either.

            Yes, LBJ was a disaster for this country. So was Nixon. It was an era of scumbags.

      • Drakken

        And where has that legislation gotten us ? Really, think about it, have we as a country gotten better or worse because of it?

        • tagalog

          I think you are mistaking a desire to be objective with being an LBJ (or a Civil Rights Act of 1964) fan. I was an LBJ hater when he was President. I didn’t like Nixon either. I still don’t like either one of them.

  • ApolloSpeaks

    Click or google http://www.apollospeaks.com

  • m4253y

    lol…i thought they abolished slavery…in one week we have the commemoration of the Gettysburg address and the 50th year since jfk’s murder…would have been cool to have the caliphate suffer jfk’s fate in the same week and we could go forward and wrap it all into one…oh well. Merry Christmas

  • Anti-Duranty

    Overall a good commentary except for your characterization of his stance on civil rights. Have you forgotten his push for school integration in the South? Am I missing something?

    • http://www.libertariancomment.com/ Glenn

      He only backed civil rights once he was POTUS. In the senate he fought against Republican bills for the same measures because he wanted to deny Republicans their rightful credit at the original civil rights warriors. JFK was a lowlife.

  • reader

    Oswald was a muslim? Could you elaborate?

  • Seek

    Utterly absurd. JFK neither pontificated nor governed like a fascist. Anyone can cherry-pick a few quotes and project motive onto them. That’s a Jonah Goldberg specialty.

  • Seek

    Check your facts. Oswald was in no way a “Muslim.” As for Sirhan Sirhan, he was most definitely a Palestinian Christian. I’ve been saying it for years: Especially in the Arab world, blood is thicker than water. Ethnic identity trumps religion.

  • Seek

    JFK and LBJ were Democrats and they fought the Klan. Do explain. Party and belief system are NOT the same thing.

  • Seek

    They were Southern ideals. It was Northern Democrats who led the way in the passage for the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s (and with very mixed results). Stop trying to out-Left the left to curry favor with the blacks. They’re not our friends and they’re not going to vote conservative. Give it up, Gee.

    • Gee

      Republican and Northern Democrats. Why don’t you learn some history first

    • reader

      Yeah, yeah. Are you going to conflate Charlie Manson with the Tea Party next, troll?

      • Seek

        Facts are stubborn things, “Reader.” Apparently, they’re too stubborn for you to accept. Blacks are focused on their own race, not on conservatism. The Klan during its heyday (long since passed) was not some sort of Democratic think tank or PAC. From the start, it’s been a secret society dedicated to social control by race. They’re the opposite of integrationists (i.e., liberals).

        • reader

          Intergrationists (i.e. liberals)? You’re making stuff up as you go. Just like I said about conflating things having nothing to do with one another.

  • Seek

    Utterly absurd. The Klan was founded right after the Civil War, decades before liberalism made an impression even in the North, much less the South. Stop listening to that idiot Glenn Beck and read some serious books.

    The Klan was based on three principles: 1) total separation of the races; 2) secrecy in order to intimidate; and 3) Protestant fundamentalism. It has NEVER had anything to do with “liberalism.” As for the Democratic Party, virtually every white in the South for a good century after the war, including opponents of the Klan, were Democrats.

    • reader

      First of all, Lanna did not say anything about liberalism. Secondly, in perfect accordance to the well developed Orwellian pattern, “progressivism” has nothing to do with the true liberalism but everything to do with trivial Marxism, which is what the modern Democratic Party is all about. Democrat Party was led by such prominent racists and segregationists as Woodrow Wilson himself, Al Gore’s father, Clinton’s mentor Fulbright and KKK member Senator Byrd – to name a few.

  • Seek

    Utterly irrelevant. That was long, long before he sat on the Supreme Court. Justice Black’s opinions were those of a supporter of integration. Personally, I’d be more concerned about millions of black criminals in this country roaming the streets than a couple remaining dozen Klansmen.

    • reader

      How can a Supreme Court Justice responsible for a landmark decision be irrelevant? And how long is long, long? Justice Black was a religious bigot and he passed away as one, just like Bill Ayers will pass away as a trivial terrorist.

      • Seek

        Hugo Black was an ex-Klansmen in belief by the time he ascended to the Court. In any event, there are worse things to be than a public servant who belonged to the Klan 50 years earlier. How about Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson today?

        • reader

          Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are race bating racketeers. It does not make Hugo Black any less racist. Kind of like Hitler being a war criminal does not make Stalin a hero, and vice versa.

  • Seek

    Why is expressing an opinion grounds for a lawsuit? It’s a dumb opinion, but we have free speech in the country.

  • tagalog

    At the time of Kennedy’s death, the prevailing conservative perspective was deemed -by conservatives- to be the perspective of Barry Goldwater, who was the Republican candidate for President in 1964. Kennedy was the darling son of the Democrat Party at the time – JFK and Jackie and their family had seized the imagination of the U.S. population in ways that had not been matched since the time of Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt.

    Given those facts, it seems likely that JFK and his political party did NOT perceive him as a conservative at the time. The 1964 presidential campaign, you may recall, was the one where Goldwater was so vilely misrepresented in the famous ad featuring the child in the wildflowers, wiped out in a nuclear war that Goldwater would start if we elected him. Would JFK have OK’d that ad? We forget how ruthless and expedient a politician JFK (and Bobby) was, in our misty-eyed nostalgia for Camelot.

  • http://www.libertariancomment.com/ Glenn

    How is starting a war in Vietnam in any way conservative? How is abandoning freedom fighters in our hemisphere, at the Bay of Pigs, conservative? This weakness directly provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Kennedy almost spun up into a war. How is that conservative? He abused his power by bringing in his utterly unqualified brother Bobby to be AG, who went on to abuse his power in ways that embarrassed Hoover – and that’s saying something.

    Personally, JFK was a drug addict, sex addict and abuser of women. Just the agony he put Jackie through alone should make any conservative reject him, but that’s just start. Hookers from mob friends smuggled into the White House and non-stop philandering – how is any of that conservative? Even his signature tag line “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” is all azz backwards. My govt is here to do for the people, not the reverse. I don’t care what some elitist lighweight politician who looks good in a suit tells me how to feel about my country, I just want him to do the job.

    Kennedy was a terrible POTUS and a worse person – just like every other Kennedy lowlife. That people made a celebrity out of him only says how silly most people are…

  • Gregory G. Sierveld

    Ngo Dinh Diem….. Removed? sure is a nice way to put murdering someone, via the CIA. Tell me how is Kennedy Anti Communist after the bay of pigs and assassinating Diem instead of ho chi minh?

  • Louis Thorndon

    I agree with Professor Thornton’s analysis. The problem is that the electorate is different. LBJ created re-alignment by finally driving the South from the Democrat Party. He also dramatically expanded the entitlement state and so created a class of the welfare dependent. Further, the Warren Court’s continuing legacy is the destruction of Christian values in government schools and it effectively ended anti-Communist programs and it reached deeply into State sovereignty. The effect of all this is that the Henry Wallace wing of the Democrat Party took over. The old Democrat Party was an odd coalition of ethnics who were against the Civil War, Southerners who were against the Civil War and Northern pacifists who were against the Civil War. It was a party of the Left, the Right and Roman Catholics. FDR was from the Left. Woodrow Wilson was of the Left, but also a Southern racist. When FDR unleashed the unions, they were often Roman Catholic and therefore, in those days, anti-Communist AND the unions remained unwelcome in the South. The only obvious way to break the hold of the Left on the Democrat Party is to increase the number of patronage positions, so that there are people who are not zealots who are interested in machine politics. The only obvious way to fracture the current Democrat coalition is to play identity politics and for the GOP to nominate blacks, Hispanics and women, so as to peel away low information, non-ideological voters. This is the reason the Left goes crazy over Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. JFK was a rich Roman Catholic – not a liberal. He had a lot in common in terms of economic and cultural interests with old grandees of the South.

  • Louis Thorndon

    Right on! Liberalism is intimately connected with the KKK. Woodrow Wilson was a NJ Governor, a Princeton University President and a dyed in the wool racist who segregated federal employees. Contemporary fiction in this case follows the facts – “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” produced, directed and written by the Coen Brothers depicts a Progressive as the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, with the conservative Democrat incumbent – Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the Governor of Mississippi – as tolerant.

  • American1969

    It’s because Kennedy was gunned down in his “prime” so to speak that he gets the Martyr Treatment. Same for Abraham Lincoln. Both did break laws and do some things that were unconstitutional. However, they are remembered as tragic figures and therefore, things they did that may be questionable get glossed over and overlooked.
    That being said, JFK would not be accepted in today’s Socialist Democrat Party. He would be appalled by what they’ve become. If anything, he’d most likely be a RINO by today’s standards.

  • nonannystate

    The facts about JFK are that you right-wingers were screaming that he was a Communist and issuing wanted posters with his face on them.

    • JoJoJams

      Interesting sentence structure. “The facts about JFK are” – and then you go on to give “facts” about right wingers… At least your nom de plume is correct.

  • Kieran

    Reminds me of the story about Winston Churchill’s son who had never become famous but would be on the newspaper front pages the day he died, or so he would say. Alas, he died the same day Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

  • reader

    You are a perfect drone, a religious marxist, repeating mantra with meaningless one-liners given to you by Soros’ Ministry of Truth via outlets like hufpo and such.

  • JoJoJams

    While I agree with what you say for the most part, I take slight issue with your perspective on his “Ask not what….etc”. “country” is not “the government”, and I myself never took that quote as meaning doing something for the government. But I firmly believe we each, as individuals, should do some things for “the country” – our fellow Americans – be it through charitable giving of time and money, or in whatever capacity.

  • nagesha

    Just checking….

  • ebonystone

    A PT boat gets cut in half by a cruiser (a destroyer , I thought) when it’s stopped. and its crew is having a beer party, and nobody is keeping a lookout. To JFK’s credit, he personally pulled a crew-member who couldn’t swim to safety. Still, if he hadn’t been Joe Kennedy’s son, he would have been court-martialed and dismissed from the Navy.

  • mudnducs

    THANK YOU Mr Thornton! Never seen it better said. Democrats still pull the D lever reflexively…many/most not realizing how aligned with socialism they are. They drag up the Kennedy name as easily as they pull out the ‘racist’ or ‘hater’ moniker.

  • tatave

    When it comes to scumbaggery the Dems and libs are the champion.The Dems were the ones that invented the KKk,the Dems had in their ranks a Prominent leader of the KKK,the late and greatly missed Senator Byrd.LB told the entire world about the racist Dems.

  • Mo86

    What was said in this article that was factually incorrect? I wasn’t even born when Kennedy was killed, so enlighten me.

  • Lanna

    Yes, The Dems were the organizers of the KKK, they champion the violence, chaos, and destruction we are seeing in America today, pitting race against race and demonizing people with principles, they love chaos and destruction, THERE IS NOTHING POSITIVE THEY DO (FOR THEIR COUNTRY!) JFK WOULD BE ASHAMED OF HIS PARTY.

  • Gee

    Don’t forget slavery and segregation were also a Democrat ideals. And that Lincoln was a REPUBLICAN.

    The entire Civil Rights was championed by Republicans and the Democrats for the most part opposed it

  • Tanks-a-lot

    Don’t forget Hugo KKK Black

  • Wolfthatknowsall

    You’re right, Gee. Most Klansmen were DEMs, also.

    Lincoln was a Republican … except in modern-day Illinois, in its capital of Springfield. There, a plaque memorializing him states, “Abraham Lincoln … Democrat.”

    Had Lincoln actually been a DEM, the Civil War would not have taken place, and slavery would have died of simple economics … who needs 100 slaves to work a field when two horses and a machine can do the same job?