JFK, Conservative: “Johnny, we hardly knew ye”

(Boston) Ah, Boston, so much History in such a small space. As I walk from Copley Square up Beacon Hill and down toward Quincy Market for a luncheon at the Union Oyster House the history I reflect upon is that of the last of Massachusetts’ four Presidents- John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963).

Memories come flooding back. As I lean into a biting cold March wind I pause before the gold domed Statehouse where JFK delivered his famous “City on a Hill” speech eleven days before his inauguration in 1961. A few steps beyond is the small apartment on Bowdoin St where the young Congressman established his legal address in 1947. Just a block down the hill is the Parker House where friends tendered the Freshman Senator a bachelor party ten days before his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953.

Finally close by my destination I stop before historic Faneuil Hall where the twenty-nine year old JFK- a candidate for Congress- gave the Fourth of July oration in 1946.

Thanks to the candidate’s father the name Kennedy was fairly well known in 1946, but very little was known about his son. That is understandable. What is truly remarkable though is that nearly seventy years later when the martyred President has achieved near mythic status in American life, most of his countrymen still don’t know who he really was- what his deepest beliefs were or what he most aspired to achieve in public life.

As we move between the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination and the coming centennial of his birth there is much renewed attention to the man and his place in our history. A part of this re-examination is the provocatively titled book JFK- Conservative by Ira Stoll.

Stoll is the author of a well- received biography of Samuel Adams, former President of the Harvard Crimson, North American editor of the Jerusalem Post, and managing editor of the New York Sun. His book is deeply researched, thoroughly documented, and well written.

Moving chronologically through JFK’s seventeen year political career, Stoll examines contemporary media coverage, the testimony of friends and foes, and above all the conversations, speeches, articles and votes of Kennedy himself. What emerges is a persuasive portrait of a JFK who was a robust Cold Warrior, deeply anti-communist, surprisingly religious, a relentless foe of union corruption, a staunch believer in free markets, and most compellingly a consistent fiscal conservative who made a sweeping tax cut the central goal of his administration’s domestic agenda.

Stoll’s JFK is at odds with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party throughout his career in matters both domestic and foreign. In bringing his analysis of Kennedy’s place in history up to the present, Stoll demonstrates that while all subsequent Democratic Presidents have sought to claim the mantle of JFK, his only true heir was the tax-cutting Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan.

What is particularly impressive about Stoll’s approach is that he makes his case not by just stating his own opinions or cherry-picking those of others. Instead he relies on contemporary sources and most tellingly lets JFK speak for himself. Some examples: Look magazine introduced JFK as a “Fighting Irish Conservative” (June, 1946). The Chicago Tribune hailed the Senate Election of a “Fighting Conservative” (November, 1952).

In June 1953 JFK responded to critics by telling the Saturday Evening Post, “I’d be very happy to tell them, I’m not a liberal at all” and added “I’m not comfortable with those people”.

In a 1958 television interview Eleanor Roosevelt said she would do everything in her power “to make sure the Democrats did not nominate a candidate like Kennedy”.
The Washington columnist and close Kennedy friend Joseph Alsop noted in 1964 that JFK kept his distance from liberalism right up until his assassination. He said JFK had a “genuine contempt” for Senate liberals and their “posturing, and attitude striking”. Alsop also emphasized the “great success” Kennedy had with “conservative economic policy”.

In a remarkable revelation the Chairman of Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisors Walter Heller made notes of a surprising conversation with Lyndon Johnson the very day after Kennedy’s assassination. Said LBJ: “I’m no budget slasher… As a matter of fact, to tell the truth John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste”.

In a November 1983 Newsweek article JFK’s closest aide and biographer Ted Sorenson said “He never identified himself as a liberal… On fiscal matters he was more conservative than any president we’ve had since”.

At this point, many readers are saying “Now wait just a minute, everybody knows JFK was famously liberal. All the liberals say it and claim him as their inspiration”.

True enough. Such is the prevailing public image. There are two compelling reasons why the conservatism of JFK has receded into the shadows of History.

When Lincoln was assassinated Republicans who had bitterly opposed him in life rushed to embrace him in death, deny their opposition, and cynically claim that everything they wanted to do was exactly what “Father Abraham” would have wanted. Scores of newspapers that had decried Lincoln as an “ignorant baboon” and worse suddenly elevated him to sainthood and declared him the greatest American since Washington.

After November 22, 1963 JFK was the object of much the same process orchestrated by Democrats. Liberal journalists and historians (e.g. Arthur Schlesinger) penned eloquent treatises that artfully established Kennedy’s liberal credentials and skillfully air-brushed his conservative beliefs.

With both Lincoln and Kennedy the immense popular devotion to the martyred Presidents and their compelling personal qualities made such developments almost inevitable. A century and a half after Lincoln’s death historians are still discovering new facets of his persona. Thus it is unfolding with JFK as well.

Finally, the enduring image of a liberal JFK, is owed more than anything to the life’s work of his youngest brother. Through his nearly half century as the most prominent national Democrat the policies, the politics, and the persona of Ted Kennedy were the very embodiment of American Liberalism.

One consequence of this lengthy prominence was that the popular memory of both Jack and Bobby gradually morphed into a generalized perception of “The Kennedys”. While the association with his martyred brothers greatly enhanced Ted’s popular appeal it also obscured the complexity and historic reality of the older Kennedys. Thus Ted’s unquestioned liberalism was posthumously superimposed upon memories of his long deceased brothers. If Ted was in the words of one writer the “Last Liberal Lion” then surely JFK must have been the First.

Stoll’s fine book conclusively demonstrates that JFK and Ted were anything but ideological twins. JFK as Conservative won’t be conventional wisdom anytime soon, but as good revisionist history should Stoll gives us a more nuanced understanding of a man whose enduring hold on the American imagination is almost unique in our history.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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