This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy, so inevitably his life, his times and his politics are being re-examined.
Author and journalist Ira Stoll (Samuel Adams: A Life) makes a carefully researched case that JFK was a good deal more conservative than many might believe, given that the man is generally remembered mistily as a liberal enemy of the radical right, a civil rights proponent and something of a peacenik. Stoll seeks to clear away some of the cobwebs and remind a new generation that JFK was a complex mix.
Kennedy’s devout Catholicism, surprisingly disdained, even feared at the time, gave him a streak of fierce anti-communism. He successfully cut taxes against protests within the Democratic ranks, noticeably improving the lot of the rich, and reducing unemployment into the bargain. He cut government salaries (once decrying the number of gardeners required to tend the White House grounds), proving he was no friend of hydra-headed government. In the legendary debates with Republican candidate Richard Nixon, it was Kennedy who came across as the enemy of government subsidies, and as Nixon would later record bitterly, conveyed to the voting public that he was the stronger man when it came to pushing back at Fidel Castro and his ideology. For his cabinet, he chose among others a Wall Street banker as Secretary of the Treasury and a Republican security advisor, while retaining Republican Eisenhower’s FBI choice, J Edgar Hoover. Early on, he told his staff, “I don’t want to be tagged as a big spender.” Conservatives were said to be delighted
and liberals disgruntled at his picks and his policies.
Kennedy wanted to curb certain social programs (he worried about absentee fathers and “malingerers”), though he supported
(“surely with his sister Rosemary in mind”) support for the mentally retarded. He wanted to develop some sort of large-scale process to address poverty but simultaneously to help “the middle income man in the suburbs.” He increased the size of the military and made a linkage between winning the “space race” and staying ahead of the Russians in the Cold War. He imposed a moratorium on nuclear testing, but only in very limited circumstances: underground tests intended for “assuring military readiness and improving lethality—were still allowed.” And it was notable that Kennedy was hardly considered pro-labor when he butted heads with the burgeoning union movement.
In praising JFK, Conservative, Stoll lays the blame for much of the “JFK, Liberal” legend on the pens of his early biographers, who sought to deify the Democrat by rewriting pertinent points. Which side has more fuel will be an ongoing dispute, but it is certain that both have enough for a considerable conflagration--and we onlookers can enjoy the energy generated as we decide for ourselves.