The Media War Over JFK: Was His Presidency Conservative, Liberal, or What?

President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination.REUTERS

President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination. REUTERS

Howard Kurtz writes:  The media are awash in Jack Kennedy tributes, specials, documentaries, books and essays, conjuring up how he lived and how he died. There is an enduring fascination with Camelot, the myth enshrined after his death, and with the myriad theories and counter-theories about Lee Harvey Oswald and that awful day in Dallas.

But a partisan battle has also erupted over this question: Was Kennedy really and truly a liberal?

Why, one might ask, does this question still have resonance? Is it just a way to transpose the politics of 1963 to our 21st-century era of constant political warfare?

Sure, but it goes deeper than that. Although Kennedy’s accomplishments were meager in his thousand days, he retains a powerful hold on our imagination. This is in part because he was cut down in his prime, creating a sense of a dream unfulfilled. And though he was a lifelong Democrat, each side wants to claim his legacy.

Baby boomers, who are forever reliving the sixties, bear part of the blame. But the Kennedy memory obviously has a hold on many who were born well after he died, some of whom want to convert his magic to their cause.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby makes the case for the right:

“As Democrats maneuvering for the 2016 presidential race, there isn’t one who would think of disparaging John F. Kennedy’s stature as a Democratic Party hero. Yet it’s a pretty safe bet that none would dream of running on Kennedy’s approach to government or embrace his political beliefs.

“Today’s Democratic Party — the home of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore — wouldn’t give the time of day to a candidate like JFK.

“The 35th president was an ardent tax-cutter who championed across-the-board, top-to-bottom reductions in personal and corporate tax rates, slashed tariffs to promote free trade, and even spoke out against the ‘confiscatory’ property taxes being levied in too many cities. He was anything but a big-spending, welfare-state liberal. ‘I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort,’ Kennedy bluntly avowed during the 1960 campaign.”

That is also the theme of this National Review piece by James Pierson, examining Ira Stoll’s book “JFK, Conservative”:

“Now Ira Stoll comes along to make the startling case that JFK was not a liberal at all, but in reality a conservative who (had he lived) might have endorsed Ronald Reagan for president and today might be comfortably at home writing editorials for National Review. Most readers will be skeptical of this thesis and are likely to think that the author has taken revisionist history a bit too far. Yet Stoll…makes a strong case that conservatives should stake a claim to President Kennedy as one of their own…

“JFK appears more conservative to us today than he appeared to his contemporaries because liberalism moved so far to the left in the years after he was killed.”

That’s a telling point, reminding me that Kennedy’s foe Richard Nixon would be viewed as an outright liberal by today’s GOP.

But historian David Greenberg rejects the argument, making the opposite case in the New Republic:

“Neither the Camelot mystique nor Kennedy’s premature death can fully explain his continuing appeal. There was no cult of Warren Harding in 1973, no William McKinley media blitz in 1951. I would submit that Kennedy’s hold on us stems also from the way he used the presidency, his commitment to exercising his power to address social needs, his belief that government could harness expert knowledge to solve problems—in short, from his liberalism.

“To make that case requires first correcting some misperceptions. Wasn’t JFK a cold warrior who called on Americans to gird for a ‘long twilight struggle’? Didn’t he drag his heels on civil rights? Didn’t he give us tax cuts a generation before Ronald Reagan? While there’s some truth to those assertions, layers of revisionism and politicized misreadings of Kennedy have come to obscure his true beliefs. During the 1960 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to make the term liberal anathema, Kennedy embraced it. A liberal, he said in one speech, ‘cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,’ and under that definition, he said, ‘I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.’

“Kennedy’s pledge to ‘get America moving again’ should be understood as a part of this collective soul-searching. After the hands-off economic management of President Eisenhower’s free-marketeers, Kennedy promised an aggressive effort to spur growth and create jobs. After Eisenhower’s neglect of mounting urban problems, Kennedy promised a federal commitment to education and housing. After Sputnik and the U-2 affair, Kennedy promised a vigorous effort to win hearts and minds around the world.”

Kennedy’s shortened tenure is such that both sides can cherry-pick his record. Had he lived, would he have battled his party’s Southern wing and pushed through an LBJ-like civil rights program? Would he have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam? We are, because of an assassin’s bullet, still debating these questions a half century later.

More from Media Buzz.

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3 Comments on “The Media War Over JFK: Was His Presidency Conservative, Liberal, or What?”

  1. […] The Butcher Howard Kurtz writes: The media are awash in Jack Kennedy tributes, specials, documentaries, books […]

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