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Who Was JFK?

JFK, Conservative

by Ira Stoll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $27.00
and numerous other books and TV programs about John F. Kennedy
f_rich_1-022014.jpg
AFP/Getty Images
President Kennedy leaving St. Stephen Martyr Church in Washington, D.C., after attending Mass on the day Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, October 28, 1962

If the yardsticks are sheer volume and patriotic pretense, then the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Kennedy assassination can be called an epic cultural event. Some 140 books on the thirty-fifth president and his murder were released or rereleased in 2013, according to Amazon.com, on top of a previous inventory estimated at some 40,000 titles. Such is the perceived posthumous clout of JFK in the marketplace that his death’s half-centennial still had the power to jolt The Saturday Evening Post and Life back to life to publish a fresh round of special editions.

Television was no less rapacious in ransacking the archives. It was Kennedy who validated the medium as a political tool, and it was his assassination that spawned the conventions of 24/7 saturation coverage that have been applied to catastrophes (and pseudocatastrophes) ever since. To mark the milestone, CBS News streamed all four days of its 1963 marathon in real time online, from the 1:38 PM ET Friday afternoon Dallas bulletin through the Washington funeral on Monday. But nearly every network, big or obscure, fielded some kind of Kennedy special, and while many were pro forma, a few were ingenious in hustling fresh angles. The Smithsonian Channel manufactured the documentary Kennedy’s Suicide Bomber, about Richard Pavlick, a forgotten lunatic who conceived but aborted an elaborate plan to assassinate Kennedy on his way to church in Palm Beach the month before his inauguration. At PBS, Nova hopped on the bandwagon with a special titled Cold Case JFK, which applied “state-of-the-art forensics, including laser scanning, new ballistics tests, and a 3D digital reconstruction of the president’s skull, all to try to solve the murder of the century.”

In this sprawling celebration of Kennedyiana, there was no shortage of simulated rifle shots and sonorous anchor reflections on the gravity of it all, but the high end of the Kennedy White House has faded (except for the First Lady’s stained Chanel suit). There’s no commercial value in recreating that Pablo Casals recital from a 1961 state dinner, and these days the Kennedy White House’s cultural profile has been usurped by the annual Kennedy Center Honors, which CBS presents in a prime-time vaudeville format redolent of its Kennedy-era Ed Sullivan Show.

Still, special attention should be paid to the loftier aspirations of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, which exhibited a quorum of the art works displayed in the suite used by the First Couple when they passed through that town’s Hotel Texas en route to Dallas fifty years ago. Hastily assembled at the time by earnest local leaders eager to impress the visiting Washington royalty, the trove included most notably Thomas Eakins’s Swimming, along with works of varying stature by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dufy, and Franz Kline.

While it would be hard to argue that any aspect of Kennedy’s presidency and death was neglected in the vast fiftieth-anniversary smorgasbord, it’s also hard to say that much new was added to the existing record. The most riveting account of Kennedy’s political apprenticeship, presidency, and assassination predated the latest literary onslaught, having turned up as an unofficial book-within-the-book in the most recent volume of Robert Caro’s magnum opus on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power; the most judicious historical balance sheet on Kennedy’s White House accomplishments and failures is Alan Brinkley’s John F. Kennedy (in Times Books’ “American Presidents” series), which, like Caro’s book, was published in 2012. A solid full-dress Kennedy biography, Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life, came out in 2003. (Dallek has also produced a 2013 spinoff, Camelot’s Court.) For a comprehensive you-are-there narrative of the five days bracketing the assassination, there’s still no competitor to William Manchester’s 1967 The Death of a President, at last reissued after years of being consigned to out-of-print purgatory by the Kennedy camp’s harebrained objections to its original publication.

No new additions to the Kennedy canon, whatever their quality or agenda, are likely to alter the seemingly unshakable public consensus about both JFK’s status in the civic firmament and the murky circumstances of his death. A Gallup poll conducted in November 2013 found that 74 percent of Americans rate him an outstanding or above-average president, which places him well ahead of all his modern peers—from Ronald Reagan (61 percent) and Bill Clinton (55 percent) to Barack Obama (28 percent) and George W. Bush (21 percent). Americans are similarly united in their refusal to buy the official verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald was his lone assassin: 71 percent reject that notion, according to a 2013 survey commissioned by the History Channel. Though the theory of evolution and the threat of global warming are still viewed with skepticism by large numbers of Americans, polls show that both Darwinism and climate-change science nonetheless enjoy roughly twice as much credibility among the public as the Warren Commission.

Without the halo of martyrdom and the mob-and-CIA-populated conspiracy theories generated by the assassination—and without the voluptuous video record of Kennedy’s grace, charisma, and wit—would his White House tenure poll so high? Probably not. It’s telling that his death has a greater afterlife than his presidency. More Americans visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas each year than the Kennedy Library in Boston. Assassination books, movies, and television programs dominate the JFK catalog. For all the anniversary-pegged Kennedy volumes, none of them found a perch on best-seller lists to remotely match two retellings of the assassination published in 2012, Stephen King’s alternative-history novel 11/22/63 and Killing Kennedy, an entry (sandwiched between Killing Lincoln and Killing Jesus) in a potboiler franchise coconcocted by the Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly. (O’Reilly has also supplied a more tastefully titled kids’ edition, Kennedy’s Last Days, pitched to readers age ten and up.) The television adaptation of Killing Kennedy, with Rob Lowe in the title role, set a ratings record for the Rupert Murdoch–controlled National Geographic Channel.

What was most conspicuous about the anniversary output as a whole was that its visible impact on the citizenry seemed in almost inverse proportion to its daunting scale. The new offerings failed not only to budge the settled public view of Kennedy’s life and death, but to stir up much mass emotion beyond a nostalgic frisson of what-might-have-been. That America was half-attentive to the latest Brigadoon-like resurrection of Camelot must be attributed in part to the inexorable math of demographic change. The median age in America is now thirty-seven. The number of those who remember Kennedy firsthand is declining fast.

The once-bounteous supply of Kennedy family members directly tied to his truncated life is also running out. The three heirs who passed the JFK torch to Obama in a totemic campaign rally of 2008—Teddy, Caroline, and nephew Patrick—have since been removed from the national stage by death, a distant ambassadorial sinecure, and political retirement. After Patrick Kennedy vacated his Rhode Island seat in the House in 2011, it was the first time no family member could be found in public office since his uncle Jack arrived in Washington as a freshman Massachusetts congressman in January 1947.

The muted public reaction to the latest round of Kennedy hoopla can also be read as a reflection of our own dyspeptic political age. In an era when most Americans of all ideological stripes feel let down by politicians in both parties, from a hapless Congress to a remote president who has not proved the reincarnation of JFK (or at least the mythologized JFK) that so many had hoped, the notion that any American president could be a giant increasingly seems like a fairy tale. Kennedy may rank first among recent presidents, but in these sour times that’s not the distinction it once was.

The most animated response to the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, intriguingly enough, came from the right, which was eager to exploit the occasion for present-day political advantage. But mindful of Kennedy’s undaunted standing in polls, conservatives shied away from knee-jerk antipathy. This is a historic switch. The right demonized Kennedy during his lifetime—an animus that was codified in the contemporaneous Victor Lasky best seller JFK: The Man and the Myth, which (among other calumnies) took aim at Kennedy’s PT-109 war record much as Lasky’s Swift Boat progeny torpedoed John Kerry’s wartime service some four decades later. Not so this time around.

The closest that the “Special JFK Edition” of Murdoch’s New York Post came to a Kennedy critique was a rollicking illustrated compendium of “All the President’s Women.” To pad the usual lineup—Judith Exner, Marilyn Monroe, “Fiddle and Faddle,” et al.—the spread had to be augmented with the likes of “Gunilla Von Post, Swedish Socialite” and the 1950s stripper Blaze Starr, whose “impending roll in the hay was interrupted by the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis.” If anything, such a carnal cavalcade may enhance rather than dent the Kennedy mystique in the post-Clinton, Kardashian era.

At Murdoch’s other American print organ, The Wall Street Journal, Kennedy criticism was also minimized, to accommodate other efforts at ideological point-scoring. As tradition dictates, there was a renewed effort to connect more dots between Fidel Castro and Oswald.1 (The right’s go-to text on this alliance is a newly revised edition of Brian Latell’s Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.) But there’s less and less present-day political mileage to be had in the perennial campaign to portray Kennedy as the victim of a Communist plot. That’s not just because the Soviet Union is dead and Castro almost is, but also because a new generation of Cuban-Americans find their immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ hard-line anticommunism an irrelevant anachronism in the new century. Indeed, some younger voters in the once-solid Republican Cuban-American Florida bloc have started to migrate away from the GOP altogether in a day when anti-immigrant xenophobia, not the cold war, is central to the party’s identity.

Another indicator of Castro’s waning value to the right as a bogeyman may be that one unfailingly opportunistic conservative provocateur, the political operative Roger Stone, placed his bet in the fiftieth-anniversary assassination book sweepstakes (The Man Who Killed Kennedy, cowritten with Mike Colapietro) on a scenario pinning JFK’s murder on LBJ instead. Johnson, as a philosophical godfather to Obamacare, is a more timely villain du jour than the failing Fidel.

A more pressing conservative goal during the assassination anniversary has been to try to shield the current American right from any ties to the radical right of the 1950s and 1960s—the Kennedy-loathing cadres who sped the ascent of the John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater revolution within the GOP and who helped imbue Dallas with its reputation as a “city of hate” well before Kennedy was killed there. (Some of these ties are genealogical as well as ideological: the Wichita oil man Fred Koch, a founder of the Birch Society, was the father of David and Charles Koch.) Such a connecting of dots between then and now is infuriating to the contemporary conservative establishment, which wants to maintain that radicalism is and will always be mainly a left-wing phenomenon in America. But these days it’s hard to suppress all the evidence to the contrary. In 11/22/63, a mischievous Stephen King even tossed a fictitious “Tea Party Society” into his panorama of mostly nonfictional Kennedy-hating Dallas crazies.

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. 1

    See, for example, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “What Castro Knew About Lee Harvey Oswald,” The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2013. 

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 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.” 

  5. 5

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

  6. 6

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

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

  9. 9

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

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