JFK Was a Political Conservative

His image as a big-spending liberal is a widespread myth that needs correcting

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Paul Schutzer / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Then Senator John F. Kennedy, left, and committee counsel Robert F. Kennedy at a hearing of a Senate Select Committee on Labor Racketeering

As the U.S. prepares to mourn President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination next month, it’s worth pausing to remember that one of the things lost in Dallas along with JFK’s life was an accurate picture of his politics.

The myth is on display, among other places, at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, overlooking the site where Kennedy was shot. “Massive new social programs were central to Kennedy’s New Frontier philosophy,” said one exhibit panel when I visited there. Another referred to “Kennedy’s philosophy of using induced deficits to encourage domestic fiscal growth.”

Nonsense. Far from being a big-spending liberal, Kennedy was a conservative by the standards of both his time and today. While he increased military spending, overall he restrained federal outlays. His plan for economic growth emphasized not deficits but tax-rate cuts that he argued would eventually pay for themselves by increasing government revenue. He reduced tariffs in pursuit of free trade, and he took a hard line against communism abroad and at home.

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In more candid and private moments, Kennedy’s closest aides have acknowledged as much. At one closed-door Boston gathering of Camelot veterans, Theodore Sorensen said, “Kennedy was a fiscal conservative. Most of us and the press and historians have, for one reason or another, treated Kennedy as being much more liberal than he so regarded himself at the time … in fiscal matters, he was extremely conservative, very cautious about the size of the budget.”

What accounts for the misunderstanding? Part of it was wishful thinking by some of Kennedy’s more liberal aides.

Sorensen himself fueled this myth in his 1988 book Counselor, in which he claimed, “In his foreign policy speeches, JFK stayed out of the terminology trap, the common tendency to label groups with names that put them beyond the pale of negotiation, such as communist, or enemy, or evil.” That’s inaccurate. At Assumption College in 1955, Kennedy spoke of the Cold War in terms of “good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.” At the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960, Kennedy said, “The enemy is the communist system itself — implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination.” And in Berlin in 1963, Kennedy said, “There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin.”

It’s not only Kennedy’s speeches that define him as a conservative, but also his actions in office. Kennedy had run in 1960 to the right of Richard Nixon on Cuba; as Nixon recalled it in his memoir, after their first televised presidential debate, “Kennedy conveyed the image — to 60 million people — that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was.” In the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy ordered a blockade, disregarding the advice of more dovish advisers such as McGeorge Bundy, Adlai Stevenson and Robert Lovett.

Some of the most perceptive students of political history — the Presidents who came after Kennedy — have grasped what Kennedy stood for. Bill Clinton, whose teenage Rose Garden handshake with JFK became a 1992 campaign commercial, chose the JFK Library in Boston as a site to push for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush spoke of Kennedy in pushing their tax cuts.

(PHOTOS: When an Archive Is Lost: Jacques Lowe’s Rare (and Recently Restored) Look at JFK’s Camelot)

Liberals claim that Kennedy’s tax cuts were somehow different from Reagan’s and Bush’s, and it is true that Kennedy was cutting the rates from higher levels (though loopholes and deductions meant that few actually paid the statutory high rates). But the arguments Kennedy rejected in pursuing his tax cuts sound awfully similar to the arguments used by liberals today. The Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, from his perch as ambassador to India, opposed tax cuts and advised increasing government spending instead. Kennedy told him to shut up. Senator Albert Gore Sr. called the Kennedy tax cut a bonanza for “fat cats.” Kennedy, frustrated, privately denounced Gore as a “son of a bitch.”

Even Kennedy’s signature initiatives, the Peace Corps and the effort to send a man to the moon, are best understood as Cold War efforts to best the Soviet Union in the frontiers of the developing world and of space. As Kennedy said in one tape-recorded meeting about the NASA budget: “Everything that we do really ought to be tied into getting onto the moon and ahead of the Russians … Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”

Understanding Kennedy as a political conservative may make liberals uncomfortable by crowning conservatism with the halo of Camelot. And it could make conservatives uncomfortable too — many of them have long viscerally despised the entire Kennedy family, especially JFK’s younger brother Ted.

But the chance of upsetting some preconceived notions is no reason to stop setting the record straight. With the passage of time, fewer and fewer Americans will be able to remember Kennedy firsthand, and the job of accurately transmitting his record and legacy — of passing the torch, as JFK might say — belongs to historians, museums and teachers. The least we can do to honor his memory is to get the story right.

10 comments
WCSBlog
WCSBlog

Stoll's revisionist history is ridiculous. JFK was obviously a centrist, but labeling Kennedy a "political conservative" is absurd. He fought hard for public health care expansion, something that would be considered treason in today's GOP. He was chastised as being "soft on communism" by the right-wing and he was adamantly in favor of the separation of Church and state. He opposed deep budget cuts in times of economic uncertainty (something conservatives have been advocating for recently), arguing that they must take place in times of economic stability.


His positions on issues can be summarized here.


http://www.ontheissues.org/John_F__Kennedy.htm


He would clearly be treated as a liberal today and even moreso would he have been during his time. Please take your distortion elsewhere, Mr. Stoll. Just because you cannot handle one of the country's most beloved President's being a liberal doesn't mean you ought to spread lies.

sallyedelstein
sallyedelstein

In an age of hi octane Cold Warriors, JFK was pure jet fuel. Loaded with vigor, a can-do Kennedy flexed his formidable muscles to build up our anemic arsenal of Missiles and beef up our armies combat ready units. I recall in the summer of 1961 as tensions heated up over the crisis in Berlin, suburban cold war warriors got into heated debates about the threat of nuclear war and JFK's cry of missile gap. http://wp.me/p2qifI-nr

BabuG.Ranganathan
BabuG.Ranganathan

THE FAR LEFT AND RIGHT OF THINGS

Babu G. Ranganathan

Although I am a conservative Christian and although I disagree with President Obama on certain issues, I do believe, that compared to many other politicians, President Obama is reasonable, honest, and a man of integrity who listens to both sides and tries to find as much common ground as he can to work within his agenda. He's firm when and where it's necessary (like in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda), and, in many cases, he's flexible where he should and needs to be.

The far left and far right can't see anything right with each other's side and that's a very big problem for our nation. The far right, most recently, has been vitriolic towards and twisting of everything President Obama says. Just because they're right on pro-life doesn't mean that everything the far right says and does is right.

According to the Bible, murder is when you kill someone with malice. That is the definition in the Old Testament for murder. Jesus, in the New Testament, says that hating your fellow man is equivalent to murder in God's eyes. Hatred then is malice. What Jesus said about hatred defines the Old Testament meaning of malice.

Many who support the right to abortion do so not because of malice towards the unborn but because they do not wish to see an unwanted or severely deformed child enter the world. That doesn't make abortion moral or right, but are we correct in labeling all abortion rights people as being murderers. President Obama genuinely wants to see less abortions even though he won't go as far as making abortions illegal. The far right calls him a liar. I don't believe he is a liar, although I believe he is wrong in not legally opposing abortion on demand. I believe that the unborn's right to life outweighs a woman's right of privacy. But, I will work with President Obama where I can work with him and show him due respect.

What about the many racists in our society? Aren't they murderers according to Christ's definition of hating your fellow man as being murder. Our nation's economic foundation was built on the back of African slaves. Then, after slavery, there was segregation of blacks and whites, all of this based on hatred and contempt of other fellow human beings because of differences in physical features. All this was "murder" in God's eyes and many in the far right continue to perpetuate racial hatred (yes, murder) to this very day.

The far right wants no controls and regulations on the economy, and that's what got us in the mess we're in. Without legitimate controls and regulations in the financial markets, the greedy in our financial world were able to amass huge fortunes through dishonesty and would have totally destroyed all our lives if not for government intervention into the banking and economic system.

The far right still has no problems with corporate greed. Greed, in the Bible, is idolatry! Corporate greed not only doesn't care about our environment but destroys lives of individuals as surely as abortion.

Socialism is not anti-capitalism. Many nations are socialist and capitalist, including our great neighbor Canada and the great modern industrialized Scandinavian nations: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Socialism simply means that there will be government controls on capitalism for the safety and benefit of society and to keep capitalism from destroying itself. We already had socialism in our country long before Obama. What do you think Medicare is? The far right and corporations, through their lobbying power, are still resisting President Obama's efforts to put controls and regulations in our financial institutions that would prevent another major financial meltdown. When are we going to learn? Let's work together folks! May God help us!

Read my popular Internet article: SOCIETY’S RIGHTS VS. CAPITALISM’S RIGHTS

The author, Babu G. Ranganathan, has his bachelor's degree with concentrations in theology and biology and has been recognized for his writings on religion and science in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who in The East."

eagle11772
eagle11772

I remember Kennedy and he was a lousy President and I have always been mystified why so many people worship this BUM.  What EXACTLY did he do that, besides nearly stumble us into war with the Soviet Union over Cuba, that causes so many people to worship this guy ? !  He was a LIAR.  He lied to the American people.  He lied to his wife.  What the heck was so great about him, that so many people worship him ? !

davidhoffman
davidhoffman

From The Hunt For Red October: Jeffery Pelt: "Listen, I'm a politician which means I'm a cheat and a liar, and when I'm not kissing babies I'm stealing their lollipops. But it also means I keep my options open." JFK never revealed what he really planned to do if he got reelected and if he had plenty of support in the US Congress after that reelection. The Southern Democrats were not really great supporters of JFK's administration, so he would have needed Republican help. Perhaps give tax cuts to those, such as many Republicans, who believe that the only worthy people in the USA are the very wealthy. Then request support from them later for things they may not like so much. Perhaps increased significant enforcement of civil rights and desegregation?   

I remember one of the comments from one of the Bush administration officials about dealing with Iraq. They commented that in the days before the internet it was much easier to tell one audience a particular story and tell other audiences other stories that could be almost the total opposite of the first story. The latter audiences would not necessarily find out about the first story.  JFK and RFK were very much into that model of operation.  They told various tales to keep various groups in different levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the JFK administration.  If JFK had significantly won the 1964 election, they might have been more honest with more people.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@BabuG.Ranganathan If you are going to be so long winded and bible thumbing choose another site or knock on peoples doors in your neighborhood. Do not forget to ride a bike and wear a white shirt and black tie.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@YouDontKnow1 @eagle11772 his phony image, a kid brought up on a silver spoon with a racist dad who made his first big money bootlegging. a family of womanizers ,drunks, liars, and even murders. camelot my ass, more like the corleone family without the pasta.