Recently there has been a great deal of fond reminiscence (bordering on hagiography) of John F. Kennedy, sparked by recognition of the 50th anniversary of his assassination. That assassination was, of course, a horrible thing, for JFK, for his family, and for the nation. I would never say anything to minimize that fact. However, now that the sad anniversary has passed, perhaps we should reconsider some of the revisionism that has set in regarding Kennedy, particularly the revisionism that has many attempting to “claim” him for conservatism.
For some decades, now, there has been a particular strain of Republican Party activist that has looked to JFK as a model of “good” conservatism. “Right wing” Hollywood got into this act a number of years ago. Charlton Heston, of fond remembrance, called himself a Kennedy conservative. And at least one movie, An American Carol, portrays Kennedy as a conservative hero whose views and legacy have been distorted by the left. And now there is a book, Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative that argues, well, I think you can figure that one out for yourself.
Given so many conservatives’ inferiority complex, their fear that the lamestream media’s constant portrayal of us as angry dweebs and really, really stupid people may have some truth to it, it is not surprising that some would seek to “claim” the photogenic Kennedy as their own. After all, no figure has received anything like the sustained fawning from academia and the press that JFK has and continues to receive. 25 years after Reagan retired from the Presidency, losing the bully pulpit from which he defended himself (and us), the press has all but erased his charisma and success from the mind of the general public. (“That Berlin Wall thing? Oh, it fell down on its own—and besides, we were all against communism.”) But the legend of JFK remains.
Conservatives do themselves no favors in seeking to lay claim to JFK. Even a cursory examination of his life and career show that he was precisely the kind of President, and man, we should be proud to count among the liberals.
First, to give JFK the “conservative” his due: he proposed cutting taxes (they became law only under Lyndon Johnson). And cutting taxes is a good thing. It lessens the power and influence of government as it leaves more money in the hands of those who earned it and have the predominant right to it. But let us not allow our Obama-tinged expectations to make too much of a hero out of Kennedy for this. His tax cuts were classic fiscal policy. He wanted to use tax reductions as a stimulant for the economy and a means to increase overall government revenues. “That is great!” you say? Well, it is better than the alternative (e.g. Obama’s various tax hikes, including most prominently the Affordable Care Act). But tax cuts do not necessarily equal a commitment to a smaller central government. They certainly did not with JFK, whose “New Frontier” platform was studded with big-ticket government items including the beginnings of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and the now-typical expansions of government handouts and public works. Again, tax cuts are good because they mean greater resources and freedom for the persons and families who are the reality of our society. Kennedy was no crusader for smaller government, however; quite the opposite, in fact. But more on that anon.
The bulk of JFK’s claim to conservatism rests on his anti-communism. And, again, being an anti-communist is a good thing (sadly, as an academic, I still may be going out on a bit of a limb with that statement). But the genuine conservatives of that era (and, to my mind, ever after) refused to make a fetish of their ant-communism. Senator Robert Taft, the conservative alternative to Eisenhower, had opposed America’s NATO buildup. Eisenhower himself kept his eye on defense budgets and left office warning of a developing “military industrial complex” that could undermine rational policymaking. Conservatives understand what Robert Nisbet warned us of throughout his long career: wars and other crises allow the state to expand its control over society, and the end of the crisis seldom means an end to the government’s expanded powers. As Nisbet showed (and he was joined in this by Taft, by Russell Kirk, and by many others) crusades of all kinds endanger the civil social order, and those who would chain us to crusades (rather than prudent defense of our way of life) may well be using our fear for their own ends.
JFK, for his part, campaigned on the claim that Eisenhower had allowed a “missile gap” to develop between us and the Soviets. It turned out there was no missile gap; that claim was baseless bluster. As was Kennedy’s approach to Communist Cuba, about which he was willing to make threats (and, we are told, hire feckless assassins) but where he allowed scores of brave Cuban patriots to go to their deaths without effective American air support after his own people told them to land on an indefensible beach in their attempt to retake the island from Castro’s communist regime.
Then, of course, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis: Those famed Thirteen Days when, we are told, Kennedy pulled the world back from the brink of destruction through strength, tempered by prudence. Of course, now that the Cold War is over, we have access to the Soviet side of the story. Sadly, it is more truthful than that put out by Kennedy’s aides and various boosters and accepted as almost Gospel truth in the U.S. The Soviet data supports the long-dismissed view that JFK had to be begged and brow-beaten into standing his ground so as to come out a “winner” in the crisis. In particular, JFK fell for Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s ploy when Khrushchev privately offered to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade then publicly demanded a trade requiring the U.S. to dismantle its missiles in Turkey. Kennedy was willing to go along with the trade, suggesting to his advisors that they secretly ask the United Nations to propose the deal. In the end and after much cajoling, Kennedy saved face by agreeing to remove the missiles from Turkey, provided the quid-pro-quo was kept secret. Not a lot of guts displayed in that exchange.
And it is here, in the realm of character, that the conservative picture of Kennedy really falls down. While many Republicans have long decried the “Puritanism” of conservatives and the American heartland more generally, ours always has been a country, and a tradition, insistent upon a certain amount of private virtue in our public figures. Nixon’s lies cost him his conservative support. Kennedy’s character should be seen as a model of what should be avoided in our leaders. In particular, his persistent, almost pathological philandering should cost him any conservative support he might have. Mistakes are one thing, a dishonest and disrespectful way of life quite another.
Finally, then, there is the general, Kennedy view of government. Perhaps JFK’s most famous words, uttered in his inaugural address, were “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This memorable phrase has been praised greatly for its rhetorical power. As to its content, taken in the context of a vast liberal welfare warfare state, it should send shivers down the spine of any conservative. The juxtaposition of the individual with the “country,” as if each of us were a single unit, facing the unified being of all of society (perhaps in the “person” of the government?) is inimical to conservatism, and to any humane understanding of politics and society. No country is a single being, containing within itself individual units, as of atoms making up a molecule. A country is a society, made up of a plethora of interconnected, overlapping groups, from families to churches to townships and local, community organizations, as well as businesses, workmen’s groups and various national organizations. We may ask what particular neighbors can do for us, and vice-versa, and remain a free people. Asking ourselves what our “country” owes us, and vice versa, we have entered a dangerous realm in which our choices are rank selfishness or civil religion. The welfare state JFK worked to expand encourages people to ask what their country can do for them. As for the other side of the coin, soldiers and others facing the need for personal sacrifice in times of grave danger to the nation may face questions of what they may do for “their country.” But it is problematic at best for such questions to be in the forefront of our minds for any extended period of time; for, here, we enter the realm of civil religion and the “moral equivalent of war.” Sacrifice on the battlefield in a just war is heroic, but should not be common because of the extreme virtue it demands. The self-sacrifice we consider too often will leave our neighbors in the cold as we seek “ideals” that have more to do with ideology and state power than with the virtues of service to our communities. And such thinking only increases the power of the government to define our goals, our virtue, and our lives for us.
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