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Was Kennedy A Conservative? Well…Ronald Reagan Saw Marx And Hitler In JFK’s ‘Bold New Program’

Memo Pad Politics

Was Kennedy A Conservative? Well…Ronald Reagan Saw Marx And Hitler In JFK’s ‘Bold New Program’


The opportunistic right-wing campaign to claim John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a “conservative” on the 50th anniversary of his death never made much sense — and may now perhaps conclude with a quotation from the ultimate Republican authority: their most revered presidential hero, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In a 1960 letter to the somewhat less heroic Richard Milhous Nixon, then running as the GOP presidential nominee against the liberal Massachusetts senator, Reagan vented his private opinion about Kennedy’s ideology in full with comparisons to a couple of other historical figures:

Shouldn’t someone tag Mr. Kennedy’s ‘bold new imaginative program’ with its proper age? Under the tousled boyish haircut it is still old Karl Marx — first launched a century ago. There is nothing new in the idea of a government being Big Brother to us all. Hitler called his state ‘State Socialism,’ and way before him it was relevant benevolent monarchy.

Whatever the quality of Reagan’s analogies, they were clearly not meant as compliments to the Democratic presidential nominee, but reflected the dominant view of JFK among the conservatives of that era. The letter to Nixon is quoted in The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2000), by Matthew Dallek.

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers. Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003). Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. charleo1 November 23, 2013

    Who can say just when it was that Ronald Reagan, this lower middle class boy from Tampico IL. Born in an upstairs squat, above a downtown tavern, lost his soul, and
    betrayed all those salt of the earth people who reached out to help this impoverished son of an alcoholic drifter. Suffice it to say, it’s one of those mysteries, perhaps not even known by Reagan himself. Or, that a young privileged son of a multi millionaire, could dedicate his life to advocating for the most unfortunate, and pitiful among us. Already, Reagan’s legacy is sullying the poorly constructed legend, his upper crusty defenders have attempted to build up, around him. Yet, Kennedy’s star, and his vision remain every bit as inspirational today, as when he was cut down, lo those many years ago. It has been mentioned, and is worth remembering. That as Kennedy’s Peace Corp fanned out across the globe to seek out, and help make the lives of countless human beings better. On the walls of their mud floor huts, they reported with astounding regularity, the picture of John F. Kennedy. In the deepest jungles, in some of the most remote, and inhospitable places on the planet. To the palaces, and manors of some of the wealthiest, and most powerful people on earth. There hangs a picture of our beloved 35th President.

    1. disqus_ivSI3ByGmh November 25, 2013

      To me, Reagan lost his credibility when he denounced his first wife, Jane Wyman, before the HUAC for her failure to name names of people she thought might have socialist leanings. Reagan had her committed, divorced her, and married the woman he had been cheating on her. So much for his halo.

    2. notta_lackey November 29, 2013

      I am not sure about the authenticity of this letter. At the time it supposedly was written, as I recall, Reagan was still pretty far left. When was his conversion to conservatism? Any enlightenment?

      1. charleo1 November 29, 2013

        By 1954, Reagan’s film career had slowed down and he was hired by General Electric to host a television program and to make celebrity appearances at GE plants. He spent eight years doing this job, making speeches and learning about people around the country. (From an article by Jennifer Rosenberg.) Although Reagan officially switched his political affiliation in 1962. Most likely, with a run for the Governorship of California in mind. He supported Nixon over Kennedy, in 1960. Revealing his conversion probably occurred while in the employ of GE. There was a time before GE came along, Reagan’s Hollywood career had essentially collapsed. He was broke, and in danger of losing his ranch. Even briefly signing on with a group of Vaudevillian style hoofers, to do shows in Las Vegas. But, with his new gig as a corporate spokesman, came a new Reagan. From FDR, to Richard Nixon, and Barry Goldwater. Reagan recognized, perhaps after Nixon’s disastrous debate with Kennedy, a first for television. What the Right needed to carry it’s message, was a trained actor, seeped in the dual philosophies of both Conservatism, and Corporatism. A niche he was imminently qualified to fill.

        1. notta_lackey November 30, 2013


  2. ORAXX November 24, 2013

    The more I read of Reagan, the more convinced I become that the man’s only contribution to his own administration was to go before the cameras and play a president on television. Reagan’s understanding of policy, any policy, bordered on the nonexistent.

  3. Bill Thompson November 25, 2013

    Make no mistake the GOP never saw Kennedy as a conservative. 50 years later the same playbook is being used by the Koch brothers the apple does not fall far from the stem.

    1. Bill Thompson November 25, 2013

      I believe Fred Koch was a founding member of the John Birch society now his little boys are the founding members of the tea party.

  4. Igor Shafarevich November 26, 2013

    Arguably, the regard for responsibility has fallen low enough to undermine the very freedom upon which our prosperity and civilization rest.

  5. Chumba Wumba November 27, 2013

    While the lamps of liberty offer a set of beacons to guide us toward what the law should be, democratic methods provide a mechanism to determine what the law will be.

  6. Superior November 27, 2013

    Joe, you’re making this too easy. According to his diaries JFK admired Nazi era germany and the Hitler movement:


    So Reagan was right. Conservatives are right. Today’s Statist/Marxist Liberals like you and your hero Obama have always and will always be wrong. By today’s standards Kennedy comes off as a conservative by virtue of cutting taxes, being strong on defense, strong anti-Communism, and being pro-Business. On his best day Obama couldn’t come close to Kennedy or Reagan.
    I used to a liberal, Joe. There’s hope for you yet. And if there is any sanity left in this country the 2014 mid-terms will correct our huge mistake and give the Marxist in Chief a veto proof majority to contend with.

    1. charleo1 November 29, 2013

      Actually Reagan was wrong. Never more provably wrong than today.
      As we can clearly see after 30 years, the disastrous results of his proliferate spending, combined with his zealotry for slashing taxes for corporations, and the wealthy. In his eight years of pursuing, and towing the corporate line, of
      deregulation. We quickly found our S&Ls in trouble, and in desperate need
      of a government bailout. Only the first of a long line of what would eventually culminate in the catastrophic failure of the U.S. financial sector in the fall of 2008. Under Reagan, and his trickle down, “voodoo economics,” as George Herbert Walker Bush called it. America ceased to be the world’s largest creditor, to become it’s largest debtor. And yet, you still holdout the President that guided the Country out of it’s most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Obama, is inferior to the President that set the Country on it’s downward course? Surely, this is just plain partisan demagoguery. A conclusion you must have come to by rote. Because, it is certainly not based on any economic criteria. This Country not yet fully healed
      from being subjected to the last round of Right Wing ideology. You suggest
      we return? For what, pray tell? A full blown Depression?

    2. Swami_Binkinanda December 6, 2013

      Reagan was right; negotiating with foreign terrorists to continue holding American hostages until the inauguration is a great way to discredit a political opponent, just like Nixon did with the North Vietnamese.

      Reagan was right; lower taxes once and you can raise them over and over, and your supporters will be too dumb or committed to notice they are being robbed and cheated.
      Reagan was right; let hated minorities die in droves without care or assistance and make jokes about it because they are weak and can’t oppose you.
      Reagan was right; trading cocaine for cash to support right wing terrorist nun raping priest murderers is the perfect complement to trading weapons to Iran and Iraq.
      Reagan was right; you can spend all the money you want on Keynesian government economic stimulus if you just put the money through military channels first, because then if your opponents want to stanch the gusher of funding going to corrupt military contractors and officers you can call them commies and sissies.
      Reagan was right; it was politically advantageous to start his campaign off by celebrating the Klan murderers of civil rights activists in Philadelphia Mississippi because it shows you as the right kind of people. Same with decorating the graves of SS officers at Bitburg. Nothing more honest than that exists in politics.
      Reagan was right; you can rape women all you want in Hollywood and even if Kitty Kelly publishes it in her biography of you no journalist will ever pursue it because hey, wimmin.
      Reagan was right, you can get a shitload of Marines killed and then chicken out of your commitment as long as you invade some tiny island in the Caribbean nobody has really heard of, even if it goes wrong militarily.

  7. Liberalism is Nonsense November 28, 2013

    If free markets are to work well, respectable moral and legal principles must be in place to guide separate competitors in the marketplace.

    1. Swami_Binkinanda December 6, 2013

      Free markets must be free by definition; therefore any judgement of their operation and subsequent effort to change their operation should it be found unsatisfactory is an impingement of freedom. Your policy proscription is simply a demand for the return of feudalism with a lacy doily stapled on.

  8. Socialism is Organized Evil December 4, 2013

    If our decision making is to be free of external interference, boundaries must be set to establish limits inside which the agents and dictates of the state cannot meddle.


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