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.

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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.