The columnist Ira Stoll has managed to obtain a hard-to-get interview with the author Ira Stoll, whose new book, JFK, Conservative, is being published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An edited version of the exchange follows.
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. A lot of my conservative friends were contemptuous of the whole Kennedy family. I wanted to set them straight. And a lot of my left-of-center friend admired Kennedy, but for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to set them straight.
Q. Why does it matter now what people think of Kennedy? He’s been dead for nearly 50 years.
A. The same issues that Kennedy grappled with — economic growth, tax cuts, the dollar, free trade, peace through strength, immigration, welfare reform — are still with us today. I think he had some ideas that can inform our current debates over politics and policy.
Q. Oh, come on. When Kennedy wanted to cut taxes the top marginal rate was 91 percent. And when he built up the military we were in a global conflict with the Soviet Union. It was a totally different situation than the one we face today.
A. Well, read the book. You may be surprised by how similar some of the arguments then were to the arguments today. Al Gore Sr., the Democratic senator from Tennessee who was the father of Bill Clinton’s vice president, was denouncing tax cuts as a bonanza for fat cats. John Kenneth Galbraith, the Keynesian Harvard economist, opposed tax cuts and preferred, instead, more government spending. The top long-term capital gains tax rate in the Kennedy administration was 25 percent, and Kennedy wanted it lowered to 19.5 percent. In 2013, if you include the Obamacare tax, the top long-term federal capital gains tax rate is 23.8 percent.
Q. Why is the title of the book JFK, Conservative and not JFK, Libertarian?
A. There’s a lot in the book that will probably resonate with libertarians. Kennedy was likely influenced by a libertarian writer called Albert Jay Nock. Early in his political career, JFK gave some amazing speeches about the individual versus the state. On January 29, 1950, at Notre Dame, he said, “The ever expanding power of the federal government, the absorption of many of the functions that states and cities once considered to be the responsibilities of their own, must now be a source of concern to all those who believe as did the Irish Patriot, Henry Grattan: ‘Control over local affairs is the essence of liberty.’” And the Inaugural Address line “Ask not what your country can do for you” was a call for self-reliance and an attack on the welfare state. Other parts, like Kennedy’s foreign policy and his stance on some social issues, libertarians might find less attractive.
Q. What about the space program and the Peace Corps?
A. These are sometimes cited as examples of Kennedy’s liberalism. But Kennedy made it clear that the space program was aimed at beating the Soviet Union. “Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space,” he told a NASA official in one budget meeting. The Peace Corps was also a Cold War program — Kennedy’s justification for it was that if Americans didn’t go help developing countries, the Soviets would gain dominance in the developing world with their own teams of engineers, teachers, and health advisers.
Q. If Kennedy was such a right-winger, why does anyone think he was a liberal?
A. Two of his more liberal aides, Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote books that, as I show in my book, subtly spun the record of the administration in their own political direction. JFK, alas, wasn’t around to correct those accounts.
Q. What do you think the reaction will be to your book?
A. As President Reagan put it in 1984, “Whenever I talk about…John F. Kennedy, my opponents start tearing their hair out. They just can’t stand it.”
Q. Did you come up with any surprises?
A. I hadn’t realized before researching the book that it was a Kennedy-appointed Supreme Court justice, Byron White, who wrote the dissent in the Roe v. Wade abortion rights case. And I never realized just what a religious Catholic Kennedy was. He attended Mass weekly, sometimes more, and knelt to pray at bedtime. As Barbara Sinatra, wife of the singer Frank Sinatra, remembered, “Jack was a devout Catholic and went to church to pray for his family almost every day in between hitting on all the girls, which I thought strange.”
Q. Any other surprises?
A. Yes, but I won’t give them all away. You’ll have to read the book.