Our Lives with Kennedy

by NR Interview

As you have probably noticed by now, today marks the 50th anniversary of the day President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. Historian Alvin Felzenberg, who has written on presidents and other pols, and is currently working on a biography of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the place of this death in history.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: JFK was assassinated 50 years ago today. Beyond the loss of life, the blow to the country, and the historical facts, what’s the significance a half-century later?

ALVIN FELZENBERG: To anyone who was alive on November 22, 1963, the assassination of Kennedy was what 9/11 would be to future generations. The sun shone bright on both days and tragedy came relatively early. The same questions came to mind on both occasions: How could this happen? Why did it happen? How could it have been allowed to happen?

The death of Kennedy coincided with the maturation of television as a powerful media force, which replaced print and radio as the public’s primary source of information. It was reported that 91 percent of American homes had the television on continuously over the course of four days, from the announcement of Kennedy’s death until the completion of his funeral. Networks lost over $50 million in advertising.

Back then, television acted as a unifying force in the country. It is hard for those who grew up in the age of cable and the Internet, entities that cater to ideological market segmentation and other niches, to conceive of the impact the three networks had on our national life and on how we formed our opinions. 

Finally, in retrospect, Kennedy’s assassination does appear as a turning point in American history. His presidency, whatever its limitations and failings, harkens back to a time when government was seen to have been a force for good. It had marshaled the nation’s energies and resources to win World War II; it had helped conquer polio and other disease; it was about to explore the heavens and land a man on the moon.

After Kennedy came the “great overreach” — a loss of will, and more blatant abuses of power than even the ones conservatives railed against in the days of FDR. In rapid succession came Vietnam, other assassinations, civil unrest, antiwar and other protests, Watergate, the Great Inflation, the decline of the public schools, the never-ending “urban crisis,” two impeachment investigations, three inconclusive wars in the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Great Recession of 2007, and all the rest — not to mention Obamacare. But for that shining interval known as the “Reagan presidency,” we have witnessed almost continual upheavals — not that the Kennedy years were all that tranquil, with Berlin, Birmingham, Montgomery, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam.

Since Kennedy’s passing, the federal government added no less than five new Cabinet departments: Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. Under Kennedy, unemployment remained largely under 4 percent. Too many analysts today, including the president, appear to regard 7.2 percent as the “new normal.” And, as a result of the tax cuts Kennedy proposed and Johnson implemented, the economy grew by about 6 percent annually. We have all but gotten used in the past half dozen years to “anemic” growth. I doubt that anyone running for president in 2016 would dare promise to get growth anywhere near 6 percent.

LOPEZ: You wrote a book evaluating presidents, The Leaders We Deserved. How does JFK rate?

FELZENBERG: I assign each president a grade from one to five (with five being the highest) in six categories: character, competence, vision, economic leadership, national-security enhancement, and the preservation of freedom. I gave Kennedy a three on character and a four on all the others.

LOPEZ: What’s his predominant legacy?

FELZENBERG: I think it is fourfold:

(1) Kennedy was the first president to say that the rights of all Americans to enjoy the freedoms set forth in the nation’s founding documents was a “moral issue.” Always one to assign credit where it was due, Bill Buckley noted that, on this one, Kennedy got there ahead of him.

(2) Kennedy demonstrated for the second time in the last century that marginal tax cuts can grow the economy, shrink unemployment, increase revenues, and usher in long periods of sustained economic growth. Harding and Coolidge did it before him; Reagan would after him.

(3) Kennedy challenged his fellow citizens to strive for excellence and “give back” something of themselves in its pursuit and on behalf of their country. Kennedy’s clarion call, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was a repudiation of the culture of dependency. It entailed more than working for the government. The Peace Corps and the reach for the moon were but two examples of this. So were strides the nation made in science, the arts, and sports.

(4) Through his management of the Cuban Crisis, which was itself the product of a botched attempt to free Cuba from Castro’s tyranny, Kennedy found a “third way” between “red” and “dead.” We now know that, contrary to intelligence reports at the time, the Soviets had installed tactical nuclear weapons on what Kennedy called “that imprisoned island.” Their presence would have made the costs of an invasion considerably higher than his advisers anticipated at the time.

LOPEZ: How has he influenced American politics?

FELZENBERG: Kennedy was the first candidate not only to master television but to make it the predominant means through which he projected his message and ran his campaign. It was he who challenged Richard Nixon to debate. It was he who opted for live press conferences. It was the first couple, President and Mrs. Kennedy, who decided to take the nation on a White House tour.

Kennedy carved out a new path for presidential aspirants through the bond he established between the candidate and the voters, bypassing the party infrastructure. Except in areas where he enjoyed the support of the local party structure, Kennedy organized his campaign through “citizens’ committees.” Loyalty to Kennedy rather than to the Democratic party became the order of the day. So too became the custom of the president’s personally selecting the chairman of his party’s national committee.

At a time when nominees were still selected by deliberative conventions, Kennedy entered a handful of primaries as a means of demonstrating his electability to local chieftains. Over time, voters in primaries, rather than politicians in smoke-filled rooms where delegates took their cues from party bosses, decided on national nominees. Whether this was a change for the better is open to debate.

The changes Kennedy wrought had the overall effect of weakening political parties as mediating institutions. They also made costs of campaigning, primarily on television, more expensive.

LOPEZ: Was he conservative?

FELZENBERG: I am reminded of the old expression “Compared to what?” Anyone who examines Kennedy’s record in both houses of Congress and in the White House would certainly find it more conservative than those his two brothers compiled in later eras or, for that matter, what Lyndon Johnson established after Kennedy’s death.

It is a mistake to think, as too many historians do, that Johnson merely enacted Kennedy’s program. Kennedy was more cautious about new government programs and government spending in general than his successor proved to be. His wont was to take an idea, like the “war on poverty,” and launch it as a pilot program to be replicated if successful. Johnson, who thought in more gargantuan terms, would impose it on the entire country, with every congressional district portioned out a share of the goodies.

LOPEZ: Where does he fall in the history of the Cold War?

FELZENBERG: Kennedy reigned during the Cold War’s high-water mark, when tensions between the two superpowers were greatest. While we can argue about the wisdom of many of his policies, and I have in my book and elsewhere, it can be said that he and, to their credit, Nixon and Kissinger “held the line” firmly enough for Reagan to break through it two decades later. Nowhere was this more evident than in Germany.

Yes, Kennedy’s Cuba policies left much to be desired, and his acceptance of the construction of the Berlin Wall as an alternative to war was widely criticized. But as he said in prophetic speech in what was then a divided city, we “look forward to the day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines.”

LOPEZ: Was he a decent guy? Have all the revelations since he died been in any way an injustice?

FELZENBERG: I think that actor Peter Lawford, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, accurately portrayed JFK in the film Advise and Consent, the box-office blockbuster of the early 1960s. Lawford’s character, a young New England senator, was an affable, earnest, easygoing chap, and charming. He was also a ladies’ man, who offered colleagues a shoulder to lean on, and was ever ready with quick quip. Most of those who knew Kennedy well described him this way.

LOPEZ: Character does matter, though, doesn’t it?

FELZENBERG: Character matters, and significantly in shaping political leaders and in determining how they govern. It manifests itself in different ways.

 That Kennedy was not the “ideal husband,” as the term was understood, even in the context of his “Mad Men” times, is no longer debated. I would, however, draw distinctions between his dalliances with socialites and starlets — which were private affairs and, as such, of concern to him, his wife, and his Maker — and his cavorting with women tied to the criminal underworld mafia and, according to one account, the KGB. Such recklessness exposed him to blackmail and, perhaps personal harm, and might have compromised both law enforcement and national security.

Also troubling are the revelations in a recent memoir by a former Kennedy intern. It suggests that, in at least this instance, Kennedy was callous, manipulative, and even predatory.

Let us also remember that in most of his public behavior, Kennedy showed exemplary character. He was, for instance, able to take responsibility for the failures of his administration. “I am the officer responsible for the actions of the United States government,” he said the morning after he flubbed the Bay of Pigs invasion. He refused to blame the disaster on the previous administration, on the CIA, or on the Cuban exiles his administration left stranded on the beaches. He fired people he concluded had led him astray, and he changed his methods of operation.

Contrast these actions to those of the current president. Barack Obama apparently thinks it politically expedient not to be seen as someone who knows what is going on in his administration. We are led to believe that he knew nothing about the politicization of the IRS, nothing about the warnings of possible difficulties with the Obamacare website. He adopted the “whatever” approach to what really transpired that tragic night in Benghazi. And he happened to be in Brazil when advisers whom Maureen Dowd called “warrior queens” sought permission of the Arab League for the United States to work with other nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. One can hear the ghost of JFK, who thought the president should be in the thick of the action, laughing.

Unlike some of his successors, Kennedy knew how to cut his losses and early. A month into his administration, he admitted that, contrary to what he had said in the presidential campaign, there was indeed “no missile gap.” That demagogic comment [that there was a missile gap] had begun, sadly, what became known to history as “the arms race.” It would fall to Ronald Reagan to end it by upping the ante to the point that it forced his adversary into bankruptcy. But Kennedy at least knew when to call off the charade. One can imagine what he would have made of Obama’s repeated insistence that “if you like your plan, you can keep it.” The domestic alternative of the missile gap, perhaps?

Of the ten presidents who have served since Kennedy, he and Reagan remain the only ones not to yield to anger in public or to indulge in self-pity. These are not traits that inspire confidence in leaders. Both exuded optimism and that can-do spirit.

LOPEZ: Why do Baby Boomers seem to remain so darn nostalgic about him?

FELZENBERG: For most of us, whatever our politics, Kennedy was the first president we came to know, largely through television. He seemed different from the average politician. He had style, grace, and all the rest. He also addressed many of his remarks to young people, and he talked about the future in which we would be living.

Boomers on the right side of the political fence at the time Kennedy was in office took their inspiration from two other emerging charismatic figures of the era, Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley. They too exuded style, grace, wit, and what Kennedy supporter Frank Sinatra called “class.”

It was no coincidence that the Young Americans for Freedom, founded in 1960, blossomed during the Kennedy years. Such was the tenor of the times. Goldwater conservatives, like Kennedy liberals, found outlets for all that energy and idealism the young brought to bear. And there certainly were more people around of college age than at any time in our history.

Goldwater, mindful of his own appeal to young people, looked forward to debating Kennedy in 1964. He thought the two could have an honest disagreement on the issues while keeping the campaign on a high plane. He knew that Lyndon Johnson would not only refuse to debate him but would spend the entire election season in the political gutter. After Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater appeared to lose heart in his own campaign. He confided to aides that it was as though the “fun” had gone out of it. He ran so as not to disappoint his supporters.

LOPEZ: You’re writing about William F. Buckley Jr. Any insight on what he might be writing on the 50th anniversary, could he be writing now?

FELZENBERG: It is hard to say what he would say today about Kennedy. We do know what he said a decade ago and earlier. Buckley recognized Kennedy’s magnetism, the hold he had on people, both women and men. He took note of Kennedy’s quick wit, an attribute they shared, and admired the president’s familiarity with literature and love of history. He also was repulsed at the revelations that came to light about Kennedy’s private life. He made his thoughts on the subject abundantly clear in his review essay of Richard Reeves’s book about JFK.

Early in Kennedy’s career, WFB was impressed that Kennedy did not always toe the liberal line, especially on foreign policy. Buckley could not help but note that that Kennedy’s most severe critics were in the left-leaning and increasingly dominant liberal wing of the Democratic party, which included Eleanor Roosevelt, Americans for Democratic Action, and other recipients of classic Buckley barbs.

Much of the disdain they held for JFK emanated from his reluctance to criticize Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom Buckley defended long after the senator’s fall. Buckley had to have been pleased that JFK selected an early Buckley hero, Senator Robert A. Taft, as a “profile in courage.” In a manner anticipatory of what Thatcher would say about Gorbachev, Buckley may have reasoned that Kennedy could be the kind of Democrat with whom conservatives could “do business.”

All that changed when Kennedy became president. Buckley came to regard Kennedy’s abbreviated presidency as a failure. In Buckley’s view, Kennedy’s repeated backing down from confrontation with the Soviet Union meant that the United States was losing ground to the Soviet Union in a world that did not stand still.

Second only to Soviet-style Communism and Nazism, “moral equivalence” is what Buckley abhorred more than anything else. He saw Kennedy moving in a direction that obscured rather than clarified the differences between the American and Soviet ways of life. Kennedy suggested almost as much in his much-heralded speech at American University in support of a nuclear-ban treaty (“We can help make the world safe for diversity”).

Others saw in the speech the first thaw in the Cold War.

Kennedy remained much on Buckley’s mind in the decades that followed the president’s assassination. He figures in no fewer than three of WFB’s novels, two set in Cuba and one in Germany.

LOPEZ: You have an event today at Princeton on the topic of JFK. What do you hope to convey to the ivory tower about JFK?

FELZENBERG: Well, as Adam Clymer’s recent story in the New York Times made clear, historians today take a different view of Kennedy from the one they took in the years immediately after his death. They tend to play down his non-legislative achievements and sometimes dismiss him as a Cold Warrior and saber-rattler, as if fears of a third world war — with nuclear exchanges — were unwarranted. Their preference for “programmatic liberals” casts him outside the pantheon of “transformational” presidents, who ever increase the role of government through big programs sired in legislation. Think Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

More often than not, they skip over Kennedy’s accomplishments in the economic sphere, especially the enthusiasm he showed for reducing marginal tax rates. When forced to confront it, they are quick to reply that Kennedy’s cuts were “Keynesian” rather than “supply side” à la Reagan. Both comments are at best half-true. Kennedy fell into the camp of Keynesians (led by James Tobin) that favored tax cuts as a means of growing the economy. (The other camp, championed by John Kenneth Galbraith, favored increased public “investments.”) Reagan, in his autobiography, argued that the origins of his tax cuts were in his personal experience with the tax code that discouraged work, rather than in supply-side economics. Yet the results of both programs were similar.

I expect to point some of this out in my talk at Princeton. “Should be great fun,” WFB might say.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.