JFK remains a mythical figure for left-liberals. But they’re wrong to call him the standard bearer of their principles, because though Kennedy had some liberal characteristics he would hardly recognize the Democratic Party as it is currently constructed. Here are five liberal myths about the 35th president.
1) JFK was a Ted Kennedy clone.
Liberals today are understood to stand for the opposite of everything Republicans stand for, but the labels were more fluid in the JFK era, when some Republicans were liberal and some Democrats were conservative. In 1953, shortly after being elected to the Senate, Kennedy said, “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal….I’m not comfortable with those people.” In the 1960 “I’m a liberal speech” Democrats often cite, Kennedy sounded more like a compassionate conservative:
If, by “liberal,” [our opponents] 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 demonstrates 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….if that is what they mean by a “liberal,” then I’m proud to say that I’m a “liberal.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the L-word.
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2) JFK bears no blame for Vietnam.
Though it’s true that Kennedy had only placed a few advisors in Vietnam, his “pay any price, bear any burden” rhetoric in his inaugural address was an indication of his hardcore anti-communist stance, and had he lived he might have found himself ratcheting up the U.S. response until Vietnam turned into a full-blown war. In any case, Kennedy was the very opposite of what today’s Democrats pride themselves as being — “nuanced” or “sophisticated” or “globalist” or “soft power” thinkers, all of these words being euphemisms for intentional weakness on foreign policy.
Kennedy returned from his honeymoon to attend the wedding of anti-communist Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1953, and even when McCarthy came under attack, Kennedy did not join 67 senators in censuring him in 1954 (JFK was absent that day for medical reasons but could have allowed his vote to be registered under the Senate rule known as “pairing.” Instead he said nothing). In the 1960 debates, Kennedy positioned himself as even more opposed to communism than Richard Nixon, who would later concede, “Kennedy conveyed the image — to 60 million people — that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was.”
3) JFK would be at home in today’s secularist Democratic Party.
For Kennedy, communism was not just an evil ideology but evil because of its godlessness. As Ira Stoll points out in his enlightening new contrarian book JFK: Conservative, the religion-themed speeches he gave would today sound startling coming from anyone but the most conservative Republicans, and certainly no Democrat is ever heard speaking this way any more. In a 1955 speech at Assumption College, Kennedy said,
Religion is not simply a weapon — it is the essence of the struggle itself. The Communist leaders do not fear the phraseology of religion….what they fear is the profound consequences of a religion that is lived and not merely acknowledged. They fear especially man’s response to spiritual and ethical stimuli, not merely material. A society which seeks to make the worship of the State the ultimate object of life cannot permit a higher loyalty, a faith in God, a belief in a religion that elevates the individual, acknowledges his true value and teaches him devotion and responsibility to something beyond the here and now.”
4) JFK would have loved today’s ever-burgeoning state.
Kennedy opposed agricultural subsidies and supported Eisenhower budget cuts when he was in the Senate, but while running for president he did court liberals by voting for expanded government, especially social safety-net programs. As president he ramped up the space program (which he privately cast as a national-security concern), backed an assistance program for seniors that passed after his death and is today called Medicare, and supported a minimum-wage bump.
But overall Kennedy was fairly frugal: Stoll says “he kept a tight rein on federal spending and chose to make Medicare, fighting poverty, and even civil rights lower priorities than other issues, such as free trade and tax cuts.” Despite inheriting a recession, Kennedy resisted spending-based stimulus programs (except for the aerospace-defense buildup) that he derided as “make-work” programs that were, in the words of his close adviser Ted Sorensen, “not likely to create many full-time jobs” but would “add to the published Budget deficit.”
5) JFK was a pioneer of civil rights.
Of all the Kennedy myths, this one may be the most detached from reality. Martin Luther King Jr. correctly described John and Robert Kennedy’s policies as “essentially cautious and defensive.” JFK discouraged the August 1963 March on Washington (“it seemed to me a great mistake”) while his brother, Attorney General RFK, referred to it as “that old black fairy’s anti-Kennedy demonstration” in a dig at Bayard Rustin, the gay man who organized the march.
Stoll points out that JFK opposed the Freedom Riders and told his special assistant for civil rights, “tell them to call it off.” He also said “I can’t do much” after the Birmingham bombing that killed four black little girls, appointed segregationist judges, stated that “legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this [racism] problem alone,” and said, in a meeting with civil rights leaders,
Now, isn’t it possible for the Negro community to take the lead in committing major emphasis upon the responsibility of these families, even if they’re split and all the rest of the problems they have, on educating their children?…..with all the influence that all you gentlemen have in the Negro community….[you] really have to concentrate on what I think the Jewish community has done on educating their children, on making them stay in school, and all the rest.
According to his adviser and biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy summed up his go-slow attitude with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.”