Was Kennedy a liberal in today’s sense of the word?
The 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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