NR Digital

The Right JFK

by James Piereson
JFK, Conservative, by Ira Stoll (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $27)

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.