Stop calling JFK conservative: The right's favorite new lie is filled with historical flaws

The right's embrace of JFK is filled with historical flaws on taxes and abortion -- and ignores his real record

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published November 3, 2013 11:59AM (EST)

John F. Kennedy      (AP/Bill Achatz)
John F. Kennedy (AP/Bill Achatz)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Conservatives have two favorite ways to deal with liberals. The first, Plan A, is to slander and demonize them. It was part of Rick Santorum's shtick, for example, to blast John F. Kennedy for supposedly kicking religion out of public life — or at least getting the ball rolling.  As he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos early in 2012, "Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, ‘faith is not allowed in the public square.  I will keep it separate.’ Go on and read the speech ‘I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’"Of course Santorum was lying about what Kennedy said in his famous Houston speech on separation of church and state, where he allayed Protestant fears that he would rule as an agent of the Vatican, rather than simply as an American citizen. 

But it wasn't just Kennedy's own words that refuted Santorum's claim.  More important, as I explained in a column for Al Jazeera English, Kennedy refuted Santorum's slander with his actions as well:

Kennedy never shunned religious leaders. To the contrary, on June 17, 1963, just two days before he introduced the Civil Rights Act (passed after his death), Kennedy met with a delegation of 250 religious leaders to discuss the issue. The meeting was held in the East Room of White House and Kennedy arranged for a follow-up process as well. What he did not do was take religious instructions, as opposed to exchanging ideas and opinions.

So much for conservatives' “Plan A” — slandering JFK.  Now conservatives are trying “Plan B” – pretending that Kennedy was actually a conservative all along, just in time for the 50th anniversary of his assassination.  They've tried this repeatedly with Dr. Martin Luther King, but they never get any traction outside of the Fox News crowd — though not for lack of trying.  Now they're going after Kennedy as well, lead by Ira Stoll and his new book, "JFK, Conservative."

Stoll's got his work cut out for him.  Kennedy was nowhere near as ultra-liberal as King was, but he was quite out front in proclaiming himself a liberal, most notably in a  a speech accepting the presidential nomination of the New York Liberal Party on Sept. 14, 1960, a speech commonly referred to as "Why I Am a Liberal." 

"What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label 'Liberal?'" Kennedy began by asking, and quickly answered: "If by 'Liberal' they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of 'Liberal.'"

Thus, from the very beginning Kennedy brings up — and rejects — the conservative framing of what it means to be a liberal, not just for himself, but for the Liberal Party as a whole.  So much for the conservatives' Plan A. He then quickly lays out what it does mean, instead:

But if 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."

Never mind what Kennedy himself said, however. Being a conservative, Ira Stoll is sure he knows better, although Daniel Larison at the American Conservative disagrees — “No, J.F.K. Wasn’t a Conservative,” his response is titled, as if Kennedy himself hadn't made it clear enough.

So, how does Stoll try to pull off this switcheroo?  Here's a taste, from a recent appearance on MSNBC's "The Cycle," as he responded to being asked why JFK is a conservative:

He pioneered supply side tax cuts and built up the military while restraining domestic spending and wanted to reform welfare. He appointed to the Supreme Court the justice who wrote the dissent in the abortion case of Roe v. Wade. He was religious and believed America was locked in the war against the godless Soviet Union and he wanted to win.

Note that there's not a word about the “New Frontier,” about civil rights, or Medicare, the Peace Corps or putting a man on the moon — none of the things that people at the time might have associated Kennedy with.  And there's certainly no comparison of Kennedy's politics with any recognized conservative of that time — Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, for example. 

In sharp contrast to Kennedy's actual record, which is filled with specific accomplishments, what stands out more than anything else from the mish-mash Stoll presented is how utterly flimsy his case is.  It's as if he's just going through the motions of pretending to show that Kennedy was a conservative, so that those who follow him can pretend to be convinced. What's going on here is a form of play-acting ritual, in which Stoll claims Kennedy as a member of his tribe, all whom cheer him on ... except for spoiled sports like Larison, that is.

Instead of a coherent argument, we're treated to an arbitrary hodgepodge that comes across like a bit from "SNL" or Comedy Central.  We get claims ranging from downright false (“He pioneered supply side tax cuts,” um, no — his were Keynesian, demand-side cuts), to misleading (his welfare reform went in a more liberal direction), to irrelevant (“He was religious”), to bizarre — a precognition-based argument about one Supreme Court dissenting opinion a decade after his death. Individually, each claim is ludicrous on its face. Stoll's only hope is to keep them constantly in motion, as in a game of three-card monte.

So let's slow them down a bit, and see just how ludicrous they are:

Claim No. 1: He pioneered supply-side tax cuts.

Truth:  Kennedy actually never passed his tax cuts. More important, though, supply-side theory wasn't even invented until the 1970s. As explained, for example, by Robert Schlessinger at US News and World Report, in a piece titled “The Myth of JFK as Supply Side Tax Cutter,” Kennedy's tax cuts were based on Keynesian demand-side theory: Cutting taxes would increase the amount of money people had to spend, thus increasing demand and stimulating the economy.  Not only was the logic the opposite of what was claimed, the rate he wanted was astronomical compared to rates today: He wanted to bring top rates down from 91 percent to 65 percent — enough to get him called a Kenyan socialist nowadays!

Finally, although supply-side theory didn't yet exist, one of the ideas it was built on was much older — the idea that wealth would trickle down from the wealthy if they had more money. This was an idea that Kennedy openly rejected.  In a piece specifically refuting Stoll, Matt Steinglass at the Economist quoted Kennedy supporting an increase and expansion of the minimum wage, saying, “The bill will extend to the lowest paid workers — to 3½ million men and women and their families — a fairer opportunity to share our high standard of living. To pass them by — to water down the help they need, or merely assume that prosperity at the top will someday reach them — shocks the conscience of those who care.”

Claim No. 2: [JFK] built up the military while restraining domestic spending.  

Truth:  We were at the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, so it's not surprising that Kennedy felt military necessity could trump fiscal concerns.  That's more a reflection of pragmatic judgment than of ideology.  More significant, in terms of defense policy, is the fact that he avoided a war in Laos, which many assumed was inevitable when he took office — instead signing a treaty ensuring its neutrality — and that he resisted repeated pressure from the Pentagon to commit to ta full-scale war in Vietnam, although he did send advisers, which opened the way to combat troops after his assassination. (For more on this, see "American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War" by David Kaiser). These actions don't say much about Kennedy's ideology either; they simply reflect his pragmatic judgment that it wasn't very smart to get involved in a land war in Asia, particularly so close to China.

As for “restraining domestic spending,” he may have done so as a whole — in part because of opposition in Congress, which was clearly the case with Medicare — but he was quite aggressive when it came to using economic stimulus to revive the economy, including increased anti-poverty spending. Kennedy had been in office less than two weeks when he delivered his “Special Message to the Congress: Program for Economic Recovery and Growthon Feb. 2, 1961. As summarized by Wikipedia, his legislative proposals in this speech included:

1. The addition of a temporary thirteen-week supplement to jobless benefits,

2. The extension of aid to the children of unemployed workers,

3. The redevelopment of distressed areas,

4. An increase in Social Security payments and the encouragement of earlier retirement,

5. An increase in the minimum wage and an extension in coverage,

6. The provision of emergency relief to feed grain farmers, and

7. The financing of a comprehensive homebuilding and slum clearance program.

Real Tea Party stuff, right? In the speech, Kennedy also mentioned his intention to ask for targeted tax cuts to spur investment — not across-the-boards cuts in tax rates. This absence is yet another sign that supply-side tax cutting played no role in his thinking about how to promote economic growth. What's more, these weren't just proposals:

The following month, the first of these seven measures became law, and the remaining six measures had been signed by the end of June. Altogether, the economic stimulus program provided an estimated 420,000 construction jobs under a new Housing Act, $175 million in higher wages for those below the new minimum, over $400 million in aid to over 1,000 distressed counties, over $200 million in extra welfare payments to 750,000 children and their parents, and nearly $800 million in extended unemployment benefits for nearly three million unemployed Americans.

A regular Newt Gingrich! Or Paul Ryan!

Claim No. 3: [JFK] wanted to reform welfare.

Truth: Forget want, JFK did reform welfare — by making it more liberal and more generous. Most significantly, under Kennedy, it was expanded from a program providing (and titled) “Aid to Dependent Children” [ADC] to one covering their parents as well, retitled : “Aid to Families With Dependent Children” [AFDC]. Other expansions in the area of welfare included initiation of the food stamp program, expansion of school lunch and school milk programs, a 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits and introduction of early retirement, plus benefits extended to an additional 5 million Americans. That was JFK's idea of “welfare reform.”

Claim No. 4  He appointed to the Supreme Court the justice who wrote the dissent in the abortion case of Roe v. Wade.

Truth:  That's absolutely true. But the implication that Kennedy was guided by his inner conservatism and amazing precognitive powers? Not so much. He also appointed another justice, Arthur Goldberg, and both these justices wrote important concurring opinions in Griswold, the case legalizing the use of contraceptives, based on an implicit right to privacy in the Constitution.  That decision directly laid the foundation on which Roe was based. So even if we're going to score Kennedy on his precognitive intent regarding abortion, it's going to be a toss-up at best.

Claim No. 5: He was religious

Truth: And like all religious liberals, he was a strong believer in separation of church and state. Don't argue with me, Ira Stoll. Argue with Rick Santorum.

Claim No. 6: [He] believed America was locked in the war against the godless Soviet Union and he wanted to win.

Truth: I'll let Steinglass, from the Economist handle this one:

Liberals believed that the strength of the West's mixed state-private economies, their ability to provide better social safety nets, deliver more aid to poor countries, and lead the world in science, would make them more attractive than communism. If being anti-communist makes you a conservative, every single elected federal officeholder in American history has been a conservative.

OK, I can't resist. Kennedy also said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Thus, unlike Reagan, he was not an enthusiastic backer of authoritarian dictators, in Latin America or anywhere else.  He wisely saw that some forms of anti-communism were extremely counterproductive, and so he avoided them as best he could.  Again, he was a pragmatist.

These were not the only false, foolish or misleading things that Stoll had to say in just that one media appearance.  He also claimed “his [JFK's] big domestic policy achievement was this tax cut, not just the income and capital gains tax cut but also a tariff cut.”  But actually, Kennedy's income and capital gains tax cuts were passed after he was assassinated, and were signed into law by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. So how do they count as any sort of “domestic policy achievement,” much less as “his big domestic policy achievement”? 

This is, to put it simply, pure invention on Stoll's part.  Why not name the Civil Rights Act or Medicare as “his big domestic policy achievement”? They were also proposed by Kennedy, but passed under Johnson, and they were far more central to what JFK wanted his legacy to be.  What's more, there is no mistaking Kennedy's intentions on either of them: He made major nationally televised addresses on each of them, staking out unmistakably liberal positions.

This brings us to another ludicrous claim that Stoll makes, about comparing Kennedy to more recent presidents:

There's a whole last chapter in the book sort of takes it up to the present day, through Reagan and Clinton and Carter and even Obama who some people have said it a lot like Kennedy. I reject the Obama/Kennedy comparison. I think the president most like Kennedy was actually Ronald Reagan, who based his 1980 campaign in a former Kennedy retreat in Virginia, used to talk constantly about Kennedy's tax cuts on the campaign trail, talk about Kennedy's strength in foreign policy and military buildup and used to say, which is still true, when conservatives talk about Kennedy like this, it makes liberals tear out their hair.

It's highly likely that where Reagan based his 1980 campaign had more to do with Nancy's astrologer than JFK's politics. Either way, much more significant in terms of politics was where Reagan chose to kick off his campaign: Philadelphia ... Mississippi, that is. It's a town known to the world for just one other thing: the murder of three civil rights workers during “Freedom Summer” in 1964.  In launching his campaign there, Reagan was aligning himself with memory of George Wallace, directly counter to JFK. And it hardly needs saying that Reagan's ease as an actor pretending to be like JFK says absolutely nothing about what's actually true.

For a reality check, we should turn once again to the subject of Medicare, which I touched on above.  In 1960, Medicare was part of Kennedy's campaign platform. Just 10 days after he was inaugurated, he mentioned it in his first State of the Union, saying, “Measures to provide health care for the aged under Social Security, and to increase the supply of both facilities and personnel, must be undertaken this year.” Then just another 11 days after that, On Feb. 9, 1961, Kennedy delivered his “Special Message to the Congress on Health and Hospital Care.  The very first section of proposals was titled “Health Insurance for the Aged.” He recommended “enactment of a health insurance program under the Social Security system” that would provide inpatient hospital services, skilled nursing home services, hospital outpatient clinic diagnostic services and community visiting nurse services, and related home health services — in short, Medicare.

There was powerful resistance, but Kennedy persevered — and more. His advocacy wasn't just limited to normal, conventional political means. Like Obama, he went over the heads of his congressional opponents, speaking directly to the American people. On May 20, 1962, he gave a speech advocating for Medicare before nearly 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, which was broadcast by all three networks. There were 32 other rallies being held at the same time that night. There was no mistaking how high a priority this was with him.  In that speech, Kennedy said, “The fact of the matter is that what we are now talking about doing, most of the countries of Europe did years ago. The British did it 30 years ago. We are behind every country, pretty nearly, in Europe, in this matter of medical care for our citizens.”  Remarkably, 50 years later, President Obama could truthfully repeat this statement, almost word for word in support of Obamacare.

In sharp contrast to JFK, Ronald Reagan was the chief spokesperson against Medicare. Typically, he did not offer factual arguments, but wild, hyperbolic accusations instead. In a taped anti-Medicare message, “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine,” paid for in part by the AMA, Reagan warned that, "One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism has been by way of medicine,” and closed by urging people to contact Congress with their opposition, warning that, “If you don't do this, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was like in American when men were free."

Reagan's argument sounds quite familiar, of course.  It sounds a lot like the Tea Party railing against Obamacare.  Yet, according to Stoll, Kennedy, the leading Medicare advocate, had more in common with Ronald Reagan, the Medicare arch-foe, than he had in common with Barack Obama, whose signature achievement was further expanding medical coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans.

It's not just that Stoll is wrong on the facts. He has utter contempt for them. He is not even trying to make a factual argument. He's only trying to create the appearance of one. As I said above, he's going through the motions of pretending to show Kennedy was a conservative, so that other conservatives can pretend to be convinced. It's a form of play-acting ritual, meant to claim Kennedy as a member of the conservative tribe. This is not a rational exercise, but an ethno-religious one.

This recalls Karen Armstrong's distinction between mythos and logos in the introduction to "The Battle For God." The realm of actual political policies belongs to the realm of logos, the realm of how things work in the world. But the realm of political rhetoric, symbolism and identity formation belongs primarily to the realm of mythos, the realm of meaning and purpose. In the purest sense, Armstrong explained:

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence.

Stoll claiming JFK as a conservative is that same sort of thing — a ceremony or ritual.  It's not a rational argument at all, although it ritually presents itself as such. It is much the same as the Tea Party claiming to be based on the Constitution.  It doesn't matter that intellectually it doesn't add up; it only needs the facade, enough to keep up appearances for the sake of a convincing ritual. That's all, and nothing more.  Anyone who is not convinced, not swept up in the ritual, is simply dismissed as one who doesn't understand — a Kenyan anti-colonial revolutionary ... or perhaps, just a liberal. Unlike Kennedy, of course.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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