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.
Out beyond Buckley’s rarefied intellectual environment, the rightward consensus about Kennedy was even harsher. Only months before the president’s death in 1963, journalist Victor Lasky published JFK: The Man and the Myth, a bestselling compilation of character assassination billed as “the book that will defeat Kennedy” in his 1964 re-election bid. The editors of the right-wing weekly Human Events were surely saddened by Kennedy’s murder, but not enough to stop promoting Lasky’s book in full-page ads during the months that followed, from December 1963 through February 1964. (A sense of the Lasky perspective can be gleaned from this pithy reader review on Amazon: “Makes me hate JFK all over again every time!”)
The endless attacks on Kennedy from prominent figures on the right and the far right back then — as set down in Danger on the Right, a book-length 1964 exposé by Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein — sounded much like the ongoing wave of assaults against President Obama. In one strange editorial, Human Events accused Kennedy of seeking “an excuse to usher in socialism.” Americans for Constitutional Action, a political action outfit founded by top corporate leaders, Republican political leaders, and retired military figures in 1958 to oppose the nation’s “shift toward Socialism,” likewise denounced Kennedy as a sneaky leftist. His ACA rating in 1960, the year he ran for president, was 11 percent out of a possible 100; a spokesman for the group said this indicated that “Mr. Kennedy helped move us 89 percent of the time toward Socialism…”
Following his election, Kennedy’s effort to create Medicare — defeated in 1962 but passed posthumously in 1965 — provoked the same hysteria on the right that the far more moderate Obamacare in flames today. The Conservative Society of America, run by a “peppery” pair of wingnuts named Ken and Phoebe Courtney, published “Medicare: A Socialist Fraud,” urging action against JFK’s proposal for medical security in retirement — lest the nation and the West should fall.
Of course, Kennedy was no more a socialist than Obama, as actual socialists would be the first to explain. But like Obama, Kennedy did much to earn that intended indictment from the right. And it is far too late to rescind the compliment now.
Photo: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston