We are honoring the 50th anniversary of the death of a president – the fourth assassinated. Most age six or above remember where they were shortly after 12:30 p.m. central time on November 22, 1963. I was in fifth grade at Chandlerville Grade School, that magnificent old three-story red brick building straight out of Norman Rockwell. We had returned to our seats after lunch and recess when our substitute teacher, Arlene Stone, entered crying. Being the class clown, I remarked that lunch wasn’t that bad. She paid no attention. After composing herself, she said the president had been shot. The superintendent, T.O. McCullough, soon sent all students home.
Already fascinated by history, I sat on the floor glued to our black/white TV for the next few days. I was shocked and amazed to watch Jack Ruby walk into camera view and shoot Lee Harvey Oswald as lawmen were leading him down a jailhouse hallway. Then it was the funeral procession, with Jackie holding the hands of Caroline and John John as they followed the late president’s coffin in the horse drawn caisson. Who can forget the president’s left-handed son offering the perfect military salute after weeks of practice and failure.
Sad days, but the beginning of the romantic liberal vision of JFK as the lionized king of Camelot, leading his merry band of the best and brightest as they advanced federal intervention in education, civil rights, medical care for the elderly and the war against poverty. In this scenario, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” the greatest expansion of the welfare state since the New Deal, was but the natural extension of Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” In death, the handsome and charismatic JFK’s image and legacy became larger than life. But was it true? The argument will never end – every famous Kennedy quote interpreted in conservative fashion can be counter-construed in liberal terms – but Ira Stoll, former vice-president and managing editor of The New York Sun, provides a “wonderfully mischievous analysis,” according to Jacob Heilbrunn in the New York Times Book Review, in JFK, Conservative. Heilbrunn wrote, “Dispensing with the traditional view of Kennedy as liberal icon, Stoll argues that he was, in fact, manifestly conservative in temperament and conviction, and that this conservatism often turned up in his policies. Whether Kennedy should go down in history as a closet conservative is open to dispute. But Stoll’s lively disputation offers a distinctive contribution to the debate.”
Liberal or conservative, JFK’s two great causes were anti-communism and economic growth. In 1953, at the height of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria, Kennedy had no problem announcing his conservative views: “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all.” Firmly anti-communist, he wasn’t a member of McCarthy’s band of fanatics who saw a communist behind most Hollywood movie scripts, newspaper editorials or corporate boards.
According to journalist L. Gordon Crovitz, Kennedy’s more left-wing advisers, Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote books after the assassination that helped create “JFK’s false image as a government-loving peacenik…. It’s often forgotten how troubled left-liberals were by JFK. New York Times columnist Tom Wicker disdained as ‘bellicose’ his Inaugural Address pledge to ‘pay any price, bear any burden’ to defend freedom. Former Democratic aide Chris Matthews understood ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’ as ‘a hard Republican-sounding slap at the welfare state.’
“After making tariff reduction his top legislative goal for 1962, Kennedy announced that ‘the most urgent task confronting the Congress in 1963’ was cutting marginal income-tax rates – not an antipoverty program or a civil rights law. ‘The soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now,’ he said. Liberal adviser John Kenneth Galbraith reported that Kennedy told him to ‘shut up about my opposition to tax cuts.’
“Kennedy’s tax cuts were even to the right of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which worried that ‘the economic impact of lower taxes is a guess at best.’ But he was right. The tax cuts, enacted after his death, created years of strong economic growth. The editorial page later championed supply-side economics, and Ronald Reagan cited JFK’s precedent in embracing the idea.” George W. Bush extolled Kennedy when announcing his 2001 tax cuts.
If the April 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco to overthrow the Soviet backed Castro in Cuba represented the nadir JFK’s anticommunist foreign policy, his diplomatic stare down of Soviet premier Khrushchev during the intense 14-day Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 won the gratitude of the free world. Khrushchev sought to install nuclear weapons 90 miles from America with the intent of using them. After all, he told Western ambassadors in 1956 that “We will bury you!” And he didn’t mean with shovels.
Richard Nixon admitted 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.” Indeed, 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.
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.’”
Stoll concluded: “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.”