Why Do Conservatives Keep Talking About John F. Kennedy?
A day before Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas got an earful of Bronx jeers for his rightwing views on immigration and “New York values,” he summoned up the ghost of liberal icon John F. Kennedy to signal that his was a lofty, aspirational campaign not unlike one mounted by the youthful candidate for president way back in 1960.
“The American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack,” Cruz said, quoting JFK during his acceptance speech in Wisconsin, where he had trounced his main primary rival, front-runner Donald Trump. “We are not here to curse the darkness but to light a candle that can guide us from darkness to a safe and sane future.”
Cruz, who has slowed the potty-mouthed Trump’s momentum towards the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland this summer, has pulled out other high minded phrases from the fallen crown prince of Camelot (and also from Winston Churchill) while on the stump.
In Massachusetts, the nation’s bluest state, he contended that Kennedy was “one of the most powerful and eloquent defenders of tax cuts.” He even contended: “JFK would be a Republican today. There is no room for John F. Kennedy in the modern Democratic Party.”
Unremarkably, Cruz’s commentary elicited angry blowback from Democrats, notably Jack Kennedy Schlossberg, JFK’s Grandson, who labeled the senator’s rhetoric “absurd” in an article for Politico Magazine in January. Schlossberg also denied Cruz’s assertion that Kennedy, who would be 98 years old if he were alive today, supported limited government.
“(Kennedy) created new federal programs with ambitious goals, such as the Peace Corps,” Schlossberg wrote from Tokyo. “He did not spend his years in the House and Senate devoted to obstructing the opposition. He certainly did not lead an effort, as Cruz did, to shut down the federal government to score political points and deny health insurance to millions.”
Cruz, of course, is hardly the first Republican to invoke JFK’s name, image and age on the campaign trail. As noted by many a political junkie, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, George H.W. Bush’s pick for vice president in 1988, spoke of Kennedy when defending his inexperience during a debate with Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentson, his much older Democratic counterpart and running mate of unsuccessful presidential hopeful Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Bentson famously put down Quayle with scathing disdain: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
These days, Michael R. Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York since 1988, which was founded in 1962 with support from conservative icon William F. Buckley, doesn’t believe that Cruz’s praise of JFK is a deviation from conservative orthodoxy. “There’s no problem with Cruz (invoking) JFK,” he told The National Memo in a telephone conversation. “Reagan invoked JFK on tax cuts,” added Long, who also noted that Kennedy’s legacy crosses party lines: “He was an inspirational person who brought a lot of hope to a lot of Americans. Probably some conservatives voted for him because of his love of America.”
It appears that Cruz’s use of Democratic imagery is his attempt to sell what is otherwise a far-right candidacy to voters from both parties as well as independents. Last summer, Cruz told PBS host Tavis Smiley that his campaign was “modeled” after President Obama’s successful 2008 primary campaign with its emphasis on social media. Others don’t quite agree with that assessment
“While Cruz may hope to attract Democratic votes, I can’t think that’s his primary motivation,” said David Birdsell, Ph.D., Dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in an email to this reporter. “Kennedy was known as a great speaker, Cruz fancies himself a great speaker too. Kennedy was the youngest person elected to the presidency, Cruz is only two years older than Kennedy was. Cruz wants the mantle of Camelot, but the garment doesn’t fit well and he suffers in the comparison.”
Birdsell, who believes Canada’s Justin Trudeau is far more “genuinely Kennedy-esque” than Cruz or Quayle, does regard the Texas senator as a political pro who has recognized the quality of Obama’s field operation. “He obviously loathes Obama but has the perspicacity to know there was something to learn from his campaign. That reflects well on Cruz, and the quality of his own field operation is the single most important reason he’s in second place. Lesson learned.”
Cruz, however, hit a roadblock in the Bronx this week for his hardline views on immigration and had to cancel a meeting at a charter school after students threatened a walkout. State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., a conservative Democrat who is also a pastor at a Bronx pentacostal church, hosted a sparsely attended event for him at Chinese-Dominican restaurant in Parkchester that also drew a few shouting local protestors.
Diaz, whose more liberal son Ruben Diaz, Jr. is the Bronx borough president and labels Cruz a hypocrite, said that he may also “do something” in the Bronx for Donald Trump, whose views are similarly loathed by many in the hispanic community.
“We’ve got to do something about the 12 million undocumented immigrants,” said the elder Diaz. “I want to build a wall to make America great again,” he added with a laugh, echoing Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, has put himself in the same league as Ronald Reagan on the issues, while his admirers have invoked Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson to describe his bellicose bloviating.
As for Trump’s purported allegiance to Reagan’s policies, Michael Long of the Conservative Party dismisses that notion. “He doesn’t come close to Ronald Reagan. He’s more like a populist candidate. Trump has brought a different style to this campaign that’s different from anything I’ve witnessed in my entire life.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.