Was JFK an unapologetic liberal?
The current flurry of retrospectives on John F. Kennedy will build to a crescendo as next week’s 50th anniversary of his assassination draws near. And amid all these remembrances, there will inevitably be some historical revisionism (which is not necessarily a bad thing; solid revisionism helps clarify history).
Another inevitability is the argument over Kennedy’s place on the liberal-conservative spectrum.
On that score, David Greenberg , a contributing editor at The New Republic and professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, SAYS Kennedy’s continued popularity owes largely to his liberalism.
On the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the hype—the movies and books and magazine covers, the roundups and reminiscences and retrospectives—is in overdrive. How can America resist another JFK love-in? The popular adoration of Kennedy, five decades on, puzzles pundits and historians, who note, correctly, that he neither led the nation through war nor racked up a legislative record on par with that of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson.
Some explanations for the discrepancy are obvious: His youth and good looks. His vigor, grace, and cool. The facility with which he projected this image through television, of which he was the first presidential master. And the assassination itself, which by taking Kennedy in his prime allowed Americans to spin fantasies of greatness unrealized.
Yet neither the Camelot mystique nor Kennedy’s premature death can fully explain his continuing appeal. There was no cult of Warren Harding in 1973, no William McKinley media blitz in 1951. I would submit that Kennedy’s hold on us stems also from the way he used the presidency, his commitment to exercising his power to address social needs, his belief that government could harness expert knowledge to solve problems—in short, from his liberalism.
To make that case requires first correcting some misperceptions. Wasn’t JFK a cold warrior who called on Americans to gird for a “long twilight struggle”? Didn’t he drag his heels on civil rights? Didn’t he give us tax cuts a generation before Ronald Reagan? While there’s some truth to those assertions, layers of revisionism and politicized misreadings of Kennedy have come to obscure his true beliefs. During the 1960 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to make the term liberal anathema, Kennedy embraced it. A liberal, he said in one speech, “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and under that definition, he said, “I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.’”
As an activist, Kennedy called on Americans to trust government to address the nation’s problems; as a pragmatist, he bade them to believe that dedicated public servants could again muster, as they had during the New Deal, the requisite know-how. In word and in deed, JFK put the weight of his presidency behind a liberal program. He backed a demand-side—not supply-side—tax cut designed to put money in people’s hands to stimulate short-term economic activity. The War on Poverty (an idea he had rolled out during the campaign) sought to alleviate penury, especially among the elderly, by pushing for Medicare and expanded Social Security benefits. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women endorsed workplace equality, child care facilities for working women, paid maternity leave, better Social Security benefits for widows, and equal pay for comparable work. Federal employees got collective bargaining.
Even on civil rights, where Kennedy often gave into his fear of alienating the Southern bloc, he ultimately put the power of the federal government behind racial equality. He used federal troops to ensure the enrollment of black students at the universities of Mississippi and Alabama; his administration implemented the first “affirmative action” program for government employees and contractors. Some movement leaders seethed with frustration over his slow pace. But when the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick compiled post-assassination condolence letters to Jackie Kennedy for a 2010 book, she found affecting notes from African Americans who considered Kennedy, as one correspondent wrote, “a beacon—a light in the darkness who would indeed be a second Emancipator.” His picture graced walls and mantelpieces.