John F. Kennedy Set a Benchmark for Overambitious Government

JFK and LBJ set out to prove how much the U.S. government could accomplish. They ended up proving how little extravagance can buy.

Extravagance can be intoxicating, and those who grow accustomed to extravagance, only to be deprived of it, can miss it terribly. That accounts for much of the powerful hold John F. Kennedy has on a generation of Americans even today. He led people to imagine that their government had the boundless capacity to improve the world, and on the day he died, they could still believe that.

His administration and that of his vice president and successor Lyndon B. Johnson are significant in the same way: They represent the pinnacle of ambitious, visionary government. What each president lacked was a sober sense of the limits of what it could do, at home or abroad.

For a while, their confidence infected the American people. But the course of history was to furnish an unpleasant antidote.

Kennedy came into office having roused unrealistic expectations. "With the coming of a new administration, something akin to religious fervor distracts most Americans, an extension of the endless quest for a future that has something more to offer," wrote biographer Herbert Parmet. "With Kennedy this spirit was compounded, exaggerated, made more irrational."

His inaugural address did nothing to dampen the mood. It cast the United States not just as the defender of its own security and freedom, but as guarantor for the entire planet. Kennedy declared that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty (emphasis added)."

In case that promise did not seem sufficiently grandiose, he added, "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

Kennedy gave the highest priority to the foreign arena. But Johnson's domestic program grew out of initiatives begun by JFK. And LBJ was no more inclined to restrain his rhetoric.

He extolled his social welfare plan as though he were describing paradise: "The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. ... It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community ... beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."

Neither president paused to consider whether and how the clumsy tools of government could actually fulfill these dreams. Kennedy took the first steps into a war in Vietnam—which proved that supporting friends did not assure the success of liberty and that there were some burdens Americans would not bear.

When Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, he proclaimed that it represented nothing less than "a commitment to eradicate poverty." But biographer Robert Dallek wrote that the president "was clueless as to just how the program would work." Like many Great Society programs, it did not live up to its billing.

Neoconservative thinkers have long revered Kennedy for his belief in using military power to propagate democracy and human rights abroad, even in places where they were unlikely to flourish. There is a straight line from his inaugural address to our invasion of Iraq and our protracted presence in Afghanistan, both costly, high-minded adventures with meager payoffs.

JFK's domestic plans provided the inspiration for Johnson's Great Society, which likewise attracted plenty of overconfident intellectuals. "In 1962," wrote Dallek, "a group of University of Michigan social welfare experts predicted that it would be relatively easy to end poverty in America at a cost of $2 billion a year, less than 2 percent of GDP."

Today, we spend triple that amount, 6 percent of GDP, and poverty has yet to be ended. In 2012, the Census Bureau says, nearly 50 million Americans—16 percent of the population—were poor even after it counted the various forms of government aid they get.

JFK and LBJ set out to prove how much the U.S. government could accomplish at home and abroad, a mission that endeared them to those who believe in the promiscuous use of power. They ended up proving how much it could not accomplish, and how little extravagance can buy.

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  • prolefeed||

    In 2012, the Census Bureau says, nearly 50 million Americans—16 percent of the population—were poor even (SET ITAL) after (END ITAL) it counted the various forms of government aid they get.

    By the government's self-serving definition of "poor", sure. I doubt that is defined as "lacks housing to protect one from the weather, or sufficient food to prevent malnutrition".

  • ||

    "Steve Chapman on..."

    I'll stop right there.

  • nanc528||

    Google is paying 75$/hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. On sunday I bought themselves a Alfa Romeo from having made $5637 this month. its the best-job Ive ever had.It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out www.Buzz95.com

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    Why all the Kennedy bullshit?

    Do we talk about Garfield and McKinley on the anniversary of their assassinations?

    I DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT JFK!

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Why all the Kennedy bullshit?

    Because what would be the 20th century without its personality cults?

  • Square||

    Garfield and McKinley weren't assassinated on live television. As long as there are still people alive who remember seeing that, it will continue to be a big deal.

    Once all of those people are gone, it will stop being a big deal.

  • Redmanfms||

    Garfield and McKinley weren't assassinated on live television.

    Well, technically neither was Kennedy.

  • Hawk Spitui||

    Well, commemorate the day the same way other patriotic Americans do. See if you can put down 3 shots in six seconds.

  • JW||

    Winner.

  • Bean Counter||

    Somebody assassinated a cartoon cat??!!
    Damn, nobody's safe any more.

  • Skonkey||

    He was a president and was assassinated 50 years ago. 50th anniversary of the assassination.

    Read some history.

    President don't get killed every day.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    "Ask not what your country can do for you, and ask not what you can do for your country." - President John F. Kennedy, Libertarian Party.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Ask what you can do for yourself.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Only if that was phrased a helpful suggestion, and not a command.

  • kinnath||

    Garfield and McKinley didn't fuck Marilyn Monroe.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Perhaps his finest moment though Jackie was pretty hot too.

  • creech||

    I was only a little nipper at the time, but older kids said Jackie was flat-chested, bow legged, and had a really annoying voice. I guess that's hot to some guys, eh?

  • Redmanfms||

    Jackie was fucking homely. She was the white Michelle Obama. Nothing to write home about, but she relatively young and wore more modern fashions like the young folks do.

  • Bam!||

    Jackie wasn't pretty but she had so much style and grace you didn't really look at her.

    It's like that story of Marilyn Monroe walking down a NYC street with a photographer who pointed out that no one noticed that it was Marilyn Monroe. She then says, "You want to see her come out?" and changes her body language. Instantly everyone notices her.

  • JW||

    John F. Kennedy

    FOR THE LOVE OF ZOD AND THAT WHICH KNEELS BEFORE HIM, MAKE IT STOP.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Who is this Kennedy fellow, and why is he getting such traction on Reason? Is he an up-and-comer libertarian with political aspirations?

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    No, he actually won an election.

  • Lar Gand||

    Daddy bought the election.

  • Sevo||

    Palin's Buttplug|11.21.13 @ 12:30PM|#
    "No, he actually won an election."

    If you count the 'vote early and often' Chicago votes.

  • Doctor Whom||

    OT: Higher tuitions on the UK prompt students to "drink less and study more.” Suck on that, Occutards.

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5cb1.....z2lIl3Q0rE

  • Caleb Turberville||

    I believe Brown v. Board of Education upheld every student's right to a drink.

  • Doctor Whom||

    *in the UK

  • ChrisO||

    John F. Kennedy proved just how far you can make it in life with a rich daddy and a great head of hair.

  • Doctor Whom||

    If only I had a rich daddy.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    I remember when I was a tiny little buttplug my grandmother had portraits of the two Kennedys in her house and I thought they were family members. The Jesus painting was not as confusing.

    Today the Team rules would prevent that.

  • Brian||

    Today, we spend triple that amount, 6 percent of GDP, and poverty has yet to be ended.

    But we measure poverty by relative poverty: how much someone makes compared to a median income. It's a measure of income equality. There will always be someone with an income X% below the median income (unless X is defined arbitrarily small). Further, the number of people with an income X% below the poverty line vanishes only as everyone's income is narrowly dispersed around the median income, i.e., all incomes begin converging on each other. Therefore, it's just a measure of income equality.

    This leads to ridiculous conclusions: like the killing fields of Cambodia, where everyone has equal income, has the least relative poverty, even though everyone except the party rulers are living in actual poverty.

    Furthermore, you could spend $5 trillion dollars on government hand-outs, and it doesn't count as income, implying that the number of people still "in poverty" stays exactly the same.

    The war on poverty is just BS. It's just a way for politicians to pretend to be compassionate. When you look at the actual amount of government aid specifically targeted to poor people, it's a joke. They just use the poor as human shields to protect their own asses.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    All true. Furthermore, human population has grown commensurate with the food supply and yet actual poverty increases.

  • Brian||

  • Sevo||

    Thank you. Liars like that deserve to have it face-pied into them every time.

  • Christophe||

    No. Actual poverty has not increased. Take off the blinders: http://www.economist.com/news/.....should-aim

  • steve baker||

    JFK's Irish penchant for blarney served him well.

  • Car Scanner||

    It's a pity for JFK's death.

  • messup||

    1)Peace Corps created (1961)...no longer meeting its initial goals
    2)Bay of Pigs (1961)...utter and total failure
    3)Berlin Wall built (1961)...feckless diplomacy with Mr. Kruschev
    4)Alan Shepard, Jr. became the first American in space (1961)...Yuri Gagarin was first. NASA has now been scrapped, tossed in the trash heap.
    5)Twenty-Third Amendment was ratified giving the residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections (1961)...favored Democratic Party
    6)Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)..."Missile Diplomacy" since abandoned by NATO.
    7)Although initially kept secret from the general public, reports of Kennedy's philandering have garnered much press. JFK was a philanderer. Problem was, Jackie "O" knew about JFK's sexual proclivities. So much for "Camelot."
    Why don't Americans celebrate other President's assassinations, too? HUH? Kinda odd! Pray. Amen.
    Join a Tea Party. Celebrating JFK's assassination seems like an attempt at perpetuating a failed Progressive New Left Activist agenda...pure and simple. Yes, the agenda Mr. Obama is going to place a "Head Stone" at! Just like the "Berlin Wall," Progressivism will disintegrate, too. 50 years apart, Kennedy and Obama, two peas in a pod...Obama, incipient "prevaricator-in-chief" and Kennedy "Philanderer-in-Chief" absent any morality at all. Both, must be traits of Keynesian economics (Fabian Socialism).
    Darn, almost like current Democratic administration's failures, too...celebrating failures.

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