What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?”…[I]f by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
— John F. Kennedy, September 14, 1960
On any other day, the ideological grave-robbery undertaken by the claque of right-wingers who insist that the late President Kennedy was a “conservative” would be amusing and not just contemptible. But to hear such nonsense today — on what should be an occasion for reflection and remembrance rather than rebarbative argument – is an irritating distraction. Having lived through the assassination of JFK and grown up in the shadow of that national tragedy, like so many others of my generation, I am reluctant to leave that claim unanswered.
As the historian Robert Dallek noted in his superb biography An Unfinished Life, Kennedy worked hard during the 1960 presidential campaign to prove his liberalism. Owing to his father’s notorious political misconduct as well as aspects of his own record, many liberals and progressives of that era sometimes regarded him with suspicion. It was a different time with different standards — and a very different political spectrum.
To concede that Kennedy was not born a liberal icon, however, shouldn’t be distorted into suggesting that he was “conservative,” either by current standards or those of a half-century ago. Look up his voting record in the House and the Senate, where he supported civil rights, labor rights, federal aid to education, public housing, foreign aid, minimum-wage increases, extended unemployment insurance, Social Security expansion and – with few significant exceptions – the liberal agenda of his day.
Not much there or in his years as president to substantiate the “conservative” misnomer.
Still, you don’t have to believe me, or Dallek, or the JFK Library. Just ask the conservatives themselves. Not the smarmy types now trying to remake Kennedy’s image into their own, but the legendary conservatives who were his contemporaries – and sworn enemies.
Consider how William F Buckley Jr.’s National Review — which despised unionized workers, civil rights marchers, and every other liberal constituency — assessed JFK. Having berated his “crazy administration” from the beginning, here’s how the leading conservative journal responded to his assassination:
The editors of National Review judged John Fitzgerald Kennedy to be a consummate technician of mass politics. His programs and policies – often chosen, by the evidence, in opportunistic furtherance of technical manipulations – we judged to be, for the most part, dangerous to the nation’s well-being and security, and to the survival of our perilously threatened Western civilization. Neither his death nor the fearful manner of it provides any reason to change these judgments.