After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his supporters portrayed him as a liberal hero and a martyr for liberal causes. Kennedy loyalists Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. soon published histories of the New Frontier in which they highlighted JFK’s liberal accomplishments and lamented all that was left undone with his premature death. Some maintained that he should be honored next to Abraham Lincoln as one of the nation’s great champions of racial equality. Mrs. Kennedy took the case still further by suggesting that the Kennedy White House should be remembered, like King Arthur’s Camelot, as a near-magical place guided by the highest ideals of peace and justice. “Grief nourishes myth,” as the saying goes, and nowhere does it more aptly apply than to the crafting of the Kennedy legend in the wake of his assassination.
These images of the late president have had a remarkable staying power in American culture over the past five decades. In a Gallup poll taken a few years ago, American adults ranked JFK second among all former presidents, behind only Abraham Lincoln. There have been other polls in which Kennedy was ranked as the greatest of all American presidents. Democratic presidential candidates since the 1960s have tried to outdo one another in associating their campaigns with JFK’s liberal legacy. Barack Obama’s campaign received an early boost in 2008 when the Kennedy family endorsed him as the candidate most likely to carry forward that legacy.
Those who knew or served in government with Kennedy, and scholars who have studied his life and career, have tried to deflate the overblown image of JFK as an idealistic liberal. Kennedy, they point out, was in reality a moderate or pragmatic liberal, a conventional representative of the post-war consensus that emphasized economic growth at home and fighting the Cold War abroad. He was never on good terms with Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, and other leaders of the liberal wing of the Democratic party. JFK, far from being a bold and innovative leader, was a cautious politician who never wanted to get too far out in front of public opinion. He was slow to embrace the cause of civil rights and did so only in 1963, when events in the South forced his hand. He saw the Cold War abroad as a more important struggle than the campaign for civil rights at home.
Now Ira Stoll comes along to make the startling case that JFK was not a liberal at all, but in reality a conservative who (had he lived) might have endorsed Ronald Reagan for president and today might be comfortably at home writing editorials for National Review. Most readers will be skeptical of this thesis and are likely to think that the author has taken revisionist history a bit too far. Yet Stoll, author of a fine biography of Samuel Adams and former managing editor of the New York Sun, makes a strong case that conservatives should stake a claim to President Kennedy as one of their own. JFK, Conservative is a finely crafted brief for this interpretation — and it comes close to winning the case.
Stoll reminds us that Kennedy rose to power at a time when both major parties had liberal and conservative wings and when it was far from clear which one was the liberal and which the conservative party. Rising politicians did not move into one party or the other for ideological reasons but rather for a mix of cultural, religious, or historical factors. Kennedy said that the main reason he was a Democrat was that he was “born one.” JFK disdained the liberals of his era because, as he said, they preferred to posture and take positions rather than to get things done. Kennedy went out of his way to correct anyone who called him a liberal. He ran to the right of Henry Cabot Lodge in the senatorial election of 1952 by courting the supporters of the conservative senator Robert Taft. He positioned himself similarly against Richard Nixon in the 1960 campaign, when he accused the Eisenhower administration of allowing the Soviet Union to gain an advantage in the arms race. According to Stoll, Nixon was the liberal in that race and JFK the conservative.
Stoll emphasizes one theme that has never been widely appreciated: Kennedy was a devout Catholic who prayed and attended Mass regularly. He grew up in a Catholic family guided by a religiously devout mother. Stoll recounts many occasions in which JFK interrupted official trips or campaign tours to attend church. In the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he pulled aides aside to accompany him to church for prayer. He spoke frequently about the religious foundations of America’s political institutions. The apparent conflict between the devout Catholic and the promiscuous husband is one that Stoll is unable to resolve.
Kennedy’s religious faith was the foundation for his generally conservative outlook. It is well known that JFK was an ardent Cold Warrior and a dedicated foe of Communism. Less well known is that he grounded his opposition to Communism in religious principles and viewed the Cold War as a spiritual contest between two irreconcilable views of man and society. Sounding very much like a conservative, Kennedy declared during the 1960 campaign that the Cold War “is not a struggle for supremacy of arms alone — it is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny.” Kennedy believed the Cold War might be won through a confrontation of ideas, and by sustained focus on the achievements of the free world in comparison with those of the Soviet bloc. That, as Stoll argues, was the point of his speech in 1963 in Berlin, where he challenged Communists and fellow travelers to compare the quality of life in the two sectors of the city: “There are those who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.” Kennedy’s policy as president was to confront and not merely to contain Communism. Stoll rejects the claim that Kennedy softened his opposition to Communism in the last year of his life following the dangerous confrontation over nuclear missiles in Cuba.
JFK’s brief presidency is notable in retrospect as a time when Cold War tensions reached their most dangerous point. Kennedy meant it when he declared in his inaugural address that he would challenge Soviet ambitions in Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. As Stoll puts it, “Kennedy . . . felt encircled, embattled, under siege by a menacing, expansionist, subversive Communist empire. Fighting back was the top priority.” Kennedy supported a build-up of American arms in a policy of “peace through strength.”
JFK was not only a conservative Cold Warrior but also a fiscal conservative and a tax cutter. He believed in efficiency in government and in cutting wasteful spending. He came to office pledging to balance the federal budget over the life of the business cycle. His top domestic priority in 1963 was a general reduction in personal and corporate income taxes to spur consumer spending and to promote faster economic growth. He proposed to cut the top marginal tax rate from 91 to 65 percent and the lowest rate from 20 to 14 percent, and also to reduce long-term capital-gains taxes from 25 to 19.5 percent. He pushed this proposal (a version of which was passed into law in 1964) against the opposition of such liberals as John Kenneth Galbraith, who called for more government spending to stimulate growth. The payoff from JFK’s policy came in the mid 1960s, when the U.S. economy grew at an average rate of more than 6 percent per year.
Many of Kennedy’s central ideas were later picked up by Ronald Reagan and other conservatives, but they were generally abandoned by the liberal Democrats who came along in the 1970s and 1980s. “Peace through strength,” the belief that the Cold War might eventually be won through a policy of confrontation, and the conviction that tax cuts rather than government spending are the best means to promote economic growth became anathema to Democrats. Kennedy was also optimistic about America’s future, an outlook he shared with President Reagan, though not with some of his dour successors in the Democratic party, most notably Jimmy Carter.
Stoll makes a strong case that JFK was neither the idealistic liberal of legend nor even the pragmatic liberal that the historical consensus suggests he was. Does that make him a conservative? That is a much harder case to make.
Stoll does not explain why, if JFK was a conservative, he sought to extend the New Deal, courted labor unions, supported a system of health insurance for seniors (later passed as Medicare), blasted business leaders who raised prices beyond his administration’s wage-and-price guidelines, endorsed a federal agency to support the arts, supported an expansion of welfare payments, and, in short, promoted many policies that conservatives opposed then and continue to oppose now. The surviving Kennedy brothers, Robert and Edward, had few doubts as to where President Kennedy belonged on the left-to-right spectrum. Both did their best to extend JFK’s legacy by identifying it with the leftward drift of liberal culture in the late 1960s. If their brother was a conservative, it was not obvious to them.
No prominent conservative at the time saw JFK as a potential friend or ally. Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960, took issue with virtually all of JFK’s positions, and Goldwater looked forward to challenging Kennedy in the 1964 election. Conservatives viewed Kennedy as a hopeless representative of the post-war consensus that called for the preservation of the New Deal at home and the containment of Communism abroad. William F. Buckley Jr. launched the conservative movement in the 1950s in opposition to that consensus, calling instead for a “rollback” of both Communism and the New Deal.
JFK appears more conservative to us today than he appeared to his contemporaries because liberalism moved so far to the left in the years after he was killed. As it did so, some liberals of the old school broke away from the Democratic party and established a new tendency in national politics that endorsed the New Deal and a tough line against Communism but was skeptical of the Great Society and opposed to the new cultural politics of the 1960s. The neoconservatives shared many principles with JFK, especially in the areas emphasized in Stoll’s excellent study. JFK, Conservative adds still another dimension to JFK’s tangled legacy, though not in proving that Kennedy was a conservative, but in suggesting something quite different: that he may have been “the first neoconservative.”
–– Mr. Piereson is the president of the William E. Simon Foundation and the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution.