Wednesday, September 25, 2013

JFK: Liberal or Conservative?

In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy, who at age 43 was the second youngest man elected to the U.S. presidency, spoke of the torch being passed to a new generation of Americans. Nearly three decades later, when 46-year-old William J. Clinton took the oath of office, we had all seen the black-and-white photo of a teenaged Clinton shaking hands with JFK. To democrats, it seemed symbolic of further torch passing. In reality, it was a handshake and nothing more.

History is written by the victors. Sadly, JFK’s assassination prevented him from joining that club. With his death, the historians took over, distorting the man and his legacy. When the handsome Irishman isn’t portrayed as a lecherous bed-hopper who turned the White House into a brothel, he is held up as the embodiment of modern liberalism.

In JFK, Conservative, Ira Stoll makes the case that the 35th president’s true heir was not the democrats that followed him as commander-in-chief (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Clinton, and Barack Obama), but Ronald Reagan who, like Kennedy, opposed oppressive government regulations, favored tax cuts to boost an ailing economy, stood firm against Communism, and held a deep religious faith.

In his lifetime, Kennedy rejected the “liberal” label. As a newly elected Senator in 1953, he told The Saturday Evening Post that he was “not a liberal at all,” adding “I’m not comfortable with those people.” A friend, Washington columnist Joseph Alsop, remembered Kennedy as regarding “those people” with “Genuine contempt. He really was – contemptuous is the right word for it.” Nor did liberals think highly of him. In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt told a TV reporter that she would do all she could to prevent a “conservative” like Kennedy from winning the democratic presidential nomination.

Kennedy did win the nomination, and went on to face his republican opponent, vice president Richard Nixon, in a series of televised debates. Unfortunately, the debates are remembered less for what the candidates said than for how they looked.

“I don’t believe in big government,” Kennedy told the American television audience. The democrat and supposed liberal who, in producer Don Hewitt’s view, “looked like a young Adonis,” also took a hard line against Communism, warned of criminal control of labor unions, and vowed to prevent Red China from gaining admittance to the United Nations. Nixon, plagued by five o’ clock shadow and a pool of perspiration on his lower lip, promised higher salaries for government employees, expressed a need for more taxes, and warned that Kennedy’s support for the opponents of Fidel Castro was “dangerously irresponsible.” As Nixon related in his memoirs, “Kennedy conveyed the image – to 60 million people – that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was.”

Free trade and tax cuts took precedence over liberalism’s pet issues during the Kennedy administration while the later presidency of “conservative” Richard Nixon was characterized by wage and price controls, the first presidential visit to Moscow, and the opening of relations between the U.S. and Red China.

Kennedy’s politics were influenced, Stoll believes, by his spiritual beliefs. The author argues that religion played a bigger role in Kennedy’s life than we’ve been led to believe. In his inaugural address, Kennedy said “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” Two of Kennedy’s aides, Kenneth O’ Donnell and David Powers, remember that “Kennedy was a more deeply religious man than he appeared to be or wanted to appear to be.” If he did not always live a Christian life away from the prying eyes of the media, he did something else when no photographers were present: he prayed and attended church services.

“The informing spirit of the American character has always been a deep religious sense,” he once said. Kennedy also quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “Where there is no respect for God, can there be much for man?”

There’s little question that the definition of “liberalism” has changed in the five decades since JFK was in the oval office. It could be argued that liberalism once meant protecting the minority from the majority and letting the individual flourish. Now, the respect for man that de Tocqueville spoke of has been replaced by respect for mankind which, for today's leftists, is a collectivist stance that ignores the individual and defines everyone according to race, gender, economic class, and sexual orientation. Everyone is now part of a separate group that eyes with suspicion the group to which they don’t belong. And each group wants to know what their country can do for them, not what they can do for their country.

That is not the America that JFK, Conservative, or even JFK, the liberal of an earlier era, bravely led for too short a time.


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