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John F. Kennedy Was a Conservative

What today’s conservatives can learn from JFK

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.

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  • Austrian Anarchy||


    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.


    Too bad the only thing we taught those people was socialism. Now the Soviets are gone, and everyplace where we engaged in this global social worker program might as well have been instructed by Stalin himself.

  • Paul.||

    Yes, but I won’t give them all away. You’ll have to read the book.

    I dunno, for a guy who was "fascinated" by counter-insurgency and thought putting troops into Vietnam was a "good idea", I'm not sure how "libertarian" he was. Conservative, yes, he fit many of the descriptions we'd give to conservatives.

    His liberalism would have certainly been in the realm of shutting down racist and discriminatory practices by state actors.

    Kennedy was kind of an amalgam of many things, liberals liked him because he wasn't Eisenhower and he cut a dashing figure-- something that figures highly in the liberal mindset.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    His party was not fully taken over by Communists until 1972 when George McGovern "opened the doors of the Democratic Party and 20 million people walked out."

    They were pretty darn close long before then.

  • blackford_oakes||

    The Kennedy family was a cesspool of corruption, deceit and hypocrisy.

  • Paul.||

    Libertarian hero!

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Progressivism is a moving target. In the early 1960s, the issue was whether to spend a huge amount of money or an enormous amount of money on federal programs. Plus, whether to stop the government from engaging in racial discrimination (the Goldwater position) or to also monitor the private sector for its employment practices and customer policies (the Kennedy position), though at the time it was common ground that racial discrimination was bad (as opposed to *nondiscrimination* being racist, the current progressive position).

    If Kennedy was a cultural conservative, that was because the cultural radicals were far out of the liberal mainstream. When cultural radicalism became more mainstream, liberals adopted it.

    In the late 1960s, the liberals at first opposed the countercultural, commie-sympathizing radicals, and then soon thereafter assimilated much of their "insights."

    Conversely, cartelized airlines, trucking, etc., excesses in the name of antitrust, etc. were common ground between conservatives and progs, only challenged beginning in 1964 by Goldwater and a handful of radicals until in the 1970s the progs themselves gave them up.

    So the fact that Kennedy *then* took positions that are considered conservative *today* means nothing. You can't be a liberal unless you're chasing after the latest Bright Shiny Thing, which today means cultural leftism (gays, abortion, guns), economic redistribution, and calling everyone a racist.

  • Paul.||

    You can see the moving target... move in small ways. "Liberalism" from when I was a kid- young teenager to the modern day has changed considerably.

    The abandonment of the principles of free speech is one of the most marked transformations I've seen.

    Anyone old enough to remember when conservatives griped that liberals "Wrapped themselves in the Constitution while burning the flag"?

  • Boisfeuras||

    Anti-communism isn't proof of conservatism. Prior to the New Left, all mainstream liberals were at least ostensibly anti-communist. By that argument, Woodrow Wilson could be considered "conservative", insofar as he was the only president to send American soldiers to fight directly against Russian communists. Also by that argument, Old Right anti-interventionists like Albert Jay Nock and Robert Taft, although anti-communist, could be considered less than conservative.

    Anyway, the thesis sounds interesting enough that I might pick up a copy. It would at least be fun to needle lefties by turning around their argument about old school liberals being reasonable and moderate, unlike their crazy radical modern-day counterparts.

  • Nixonfan||

    JFK was a cold warrior, just like Nixon. JFK ran to the right of Nixon in 1960. JFK was the only Democrat not to vote to censure McCarthy. RFK worked for McCarthy. JPK was a good friend of McCarthy, and was a virulent anticommunist, like all good Catholics in the postwar era. JFK had contempt for Adlai and his liberal coterie (e.g., Chester Bowles, Eleanor Roosevelt). JFK tied to push back communism by liberating Cuba (unsuccessfully, to the great sorrow of the Cuban people). He drew the line in Asia at the Vietnamese DMZ, and he prevented the communization of Laos. He was no Jimmy Carter, and we "lost" no countries during his administration.

  • ||

    Obama keeps repeating he "inherited" the worst recession since the Great Recession.

  • optimusratiostultum||

    actually don't forget the roaring 20's after Coolidges tax cuts. Taxes have been cut four times in our history. Coolidge, jfk, reagan, and Bush. All four times the resulting economic activity actually led to an INCREASE in tax revenue.

  • josh||

    the problem i have with this argument, besides the idea that republicans and democrats want to coopt everything and make it their own....which is just plain annoying, among other things. it's this idea that what jfk believed would be the same today as it was then, or that, even if it was, that what is considered liberal today and liberal then are inherently the same. the whole idea of context is lost in an effort to own jfk's legacy.

  • John C. Randolph||

    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

    Bullshit.

    He followed that line with "ask what you can do for your country", not "ask what you can do for yourself." It was a call for subservience to the state.

    -jcr

  • blcartwright||

    volunteer public service is not the same as the public dole.

    I have always understood it as a call to get off you ass and help your fellow man

  • Martha Cornertrader||

    Does it really matter whether JFK was a conservative or not? He was one of the greatest Presidents the US has ever had. t matters to me most that he died for a cause he believed in from the core of his heart. He doesn't need an image makeover by saying he prayed before bedtime. We all do. There's nothing unusual about it. Let us not remember as a good catholic but as a person who fought for the cause of the people and ultimately died for saving the dream our forefathers had dreamed of.

  • Shaftoe||

    The dream of boning Marylin Monroe?

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