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Who Was JFK?

The right’s current polemicists prefer a selective reading of history: we should remember that Oswald was a Marxist who had defected to the Soviet Union but we should forget that Adlai Stevenson, the pre-Kennedy Democratic standard bearer, was spat upon and slapped with a picket sign during his own visit to Dallas, as United Nations ambassador, in 1963. Trying to consign such inconvenient history to the dust bin in the pages of The Wall Street Journal,2 James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the William E. Simon Foundation, expressed incredulity that “a respected publishing house” (Twelve, an imprint of Hachette) could even be a party to the book Dallas 1963, in which two authoritative Texas writers, the journalist Bill Minutaglio and the cultural historian Steven L. Davis, revisit the oil baron H.L. Hunt, the crackpot former general Edwin A. Walker, the far-right Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey (appropriately memorialized by Dealey Plaza), and all the other foaming-at-the-mouth fanatics, secular and religious, who held sway over the city at the time.

The “city of hate” recreated in both King’s novel and Dallas 1963 has all too many correspondences to the rabid, Obama-hating extremists of the current American right, whether Tea Party adherents, Texans, or not. The conservative effort to decouple today’s haters from their forebears is of a piece with another of its persistent revisionist missions during the Obama era: the effort to whitewash the mass migration of racist southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond to the Republican Party in the 1960s by recasting it as a matter of principled constitutional fealty to “states’ rights” rather than resistance to court-ordered school desegregation and congressional civil rights legislation.3

The most novel conservative strategy for capitalizing on the continued popularity of Kennedy during the fiftieth-anniversary rites has been simply to appropriate him as a conservative. The fulcrum of this effort—publicized in The Wall Street Journal and by the columnist George Will, among others—is a book by Ira Stoll, a former editor of The New York Sun, titled JFK, Conservative. Stoll’s work is a tough slog not because of its tendentiousness or political slant but because of the constant qualifications he must stitch into his argument, not to mention the necessity of parsing the ever-shifting definitions of what “liberal” and “conservative” mean at any given historical moment. At times the true subject of the book seems to be the etymological vicissitudes of labels in American politics. Many apples have to be compared to many oranges.

Few liberals would dispute some of Stoll’s larger points. Kennedy did cite God and faith in public—as have most presidents. He was a staunch anti-Communist. He was not on the left of his party. (Though Stoll doesn’t mention it, Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, could not forgive him for missing the Senate vote censuring Joe McCarthy.) But much of what Stoll calls Kennedy’s hawkish “conservatism” was practiced by many other mainstream Democrats of his time—not just the Dixiecrats who would become Republicans but liberals including Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon Johnson. Stoll’s book might have been more accurately, if anachronistically, entitled JFK, Neoconservative.

On the domestic front, Stoll makes much of Kennedy’s embrace of tax cuts and his antipathy to federal spending, which he casts as the ur-text of Reaganism.4 But Kennedy’s intent and the historical setting don’t match up. As the historian David Greenberg recently wrote, Kennedy “backed a demand-side—not supply-side—tax cut designed to put money in people’s hands to stimulate short-term economic activity.”5 (And at a time when the top tax rate was 91 percent.) Kennedy may not have been the traitor to his class that Franklin Roosevelt was, but a hallmark of his brief presidency was his angry showdown with the steel industry over a price increase—a conflict Stoll recounts but can’t rationalize as conservatism. As political theater, the incident was not unlike Reagan’s standoff with the air traffic controllers’ union—except that the two presidents came down on opposite sides of the capital–labor divide.

However mixed Kennedy’s record in living up to his own ideals, his general inclination was toward government activism to improve the welfare of the less fortunate. In a typical bit of overemphasis, Stoll begins his book with a quote from Kennedy in 1953: “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all.” But try as he does, Stoll cannot reverse the meaning of what Kennedy said when accepting the New York Liberal Party’s nomination in 1960:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”6

In judging Kennedy, the question is not what we label him in any case. More to the point were the questions raised recently by Jill Abramson in The New York Times: “Was Kennedy a great president, as many continue to think? Or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief?”7

The answers are not as complicated as we tend to make them. Kennedy’s presidency will always be graded incomplete no matter how many Americans tell pollsters he was great. As a celebrity-in-chief he was preceded by Jefferson, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts, but he was the first to capitalize on the all-pervasive mass medium of television. He was no more lightweight than many presidents, not the first (or last) president to have an extracurricular and reckless sex life, or to hide a potentially disabling (or, in the case of Woodrow Wilson, fully disabling) illness.

What most endures about Kennedy is his inspirational sanctification of public service—as conveyed by his rhetoric, by specific programs (the Peace Corps), and by the example of much of his family’s subsequent careers in public and private life. Whether or not his presidency can be characterized as “great,” that was a great thing. He also made serious mistakes. He learned from the worst of them (the Bay of Pigs) to the point where, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he overruled the US attack that much of his inner military and civilian circle advocated and instead joined Khrushchev in negotiating a face-saving path out of Armageddon. That was another great thing.

Kennedy partnered with Khrushchev as well in achieving a partial nuclear test-ban treaty and, as underlined by Jeffrey D. Sachs in his book To Move the World, prepared the way for that achievement by bravely proposing a foreign policy untethered to a perpetual threat of aggression.8 JFK, Conservative notwithstanding, it was precisely that liberal recalibration of cold war statecraft that fueled the infamous black-bordered, red-baiting newspaper ad that greeted Kennedy in the Dallas Morning News on November 22. “Why have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the ‘Spirit of Moscow’?” it asked.

On the two most treacherous issues Kennedy left unresolved, the jury will always be out. Mindful of the southern segregationists in his own party, he moved timidly in advancing civil rights for African-Americans. We’ll never know whether his powerful Oval Office address, prompted by the National Guard–enforced admission of black students to the University of Alabama in June 1963, was the harbinger of a greater commitment to civil rights activism or not.

Nor, of course, will we ever know whether Kennedy would have followed Johnson’s disastrous course in Vietnam. The closest we have to an answer can be found in Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived, an account of the 2005 conference of foreign-policy experts convened by the scholars James G. Blight, janet M. Lang, and David A. Welch to address the question. For every advocate who persuasively argued that Kennedy would not have expanded American engagement or was already ending it (James K. Galbraith,9 Gordon Goldstein, and Fredrik Logevall among them) there were others (notably Frances FitzGerald) making a good case for skepticism. Kennedy made contrary remarks to different people. He may have been far from clear in his own mind what should be done. What Virtual JFK calls “the most debated and controversial what if in the history of American foreign policy” will never be settled.

How many more times can these same ashes be sifted? By the time we reach the next national Kennedy anniversary rite, whatever the pretext for it, the record of his presidency is unlikely to be much different. But the America that dissects it will be. Up until now, if there’s been one unifying article of faith about the assassination, it’s that the country changed irrevocably thereafter—ultimately for better or for worse (depending on your political outlook). It’s a defining motif of our culture, whether expressed in novels by King, Don DeLillo, and James Ellroy, or alternate histories like Jeff Greenfield’s recent If Kennedy Lived, or in the Stephen Sondheim song “Something Just Broke” in Assassins, or in the overall narrative arc of television’s Mad Men.

But as those of us who lived through the 1960s die off—and as the passions of those culture wars, like those of the cold war, continue to erode in a post-boomer America—so, too, will Camelot’s mythological status as a brief, shining moment before all hell broke loose. What will remain is Kennedy the man, the president, and the tragic assassination victim—winning, inspiring, contradictory, and elusive as ever, but at long last in actual human and historical scale.

Letters

‘The Climate of Hate’ April 24, 2014

JFK vs. JKF March 20, 2014

  1. 2

    JFK—Casualty of the Cold War,” November 15, 2013. 

  2. 3

    For a fuller account of this revisionist campaign, see my article “ Whitewash,” New York, May 5, 2013. 

  3. 4

    Perhaps no passage better indicates Stoll’s blinkered focus than his take on the second Kennedy assassination: “The death of Robert Kennedy was a tragedy in many ways small and large. Among other consequences, it meant that it would be more than a decade before John F. Kennedy’s policies of tax cuts and a military buildup would be tried again.” 

  4. 5

    JFK Was an Unapologetic Liberal,” The New Republic, November 11, 2013. 

  5. 6

    Full transcript can be found at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/jfk-nyliberal/

  6. 7

    Kennedy, the Elusive President,” October 22, 2013. 

  7. 8

    Commencement Address, American University, June 10, 1963. Text at http://www1.media.american.edu/speeches/Kennedy.htm 

  8. 9

    See also “ JFK’s Plans to Withdraw,” letter by Galbraith to The New York Review, December 6, 2007. 

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