Commentary Magazine


JFK and the Wrecking of the Presidency

The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Here’s the relevant exchange:

Bentivolio: My question is about self-interest. Do you believe that employees of the IRS can remain objective when analyzing the tax implications of groups and people that want them to lose their jobs?

Koskinen: I think so. I think that they’re professionals, they’re dedicated to–

Bentivolio: I have no doubt in their professionalism. I’m not asking you about that. I’m asking you about their neutrality and how it affects their objectivity. Do you believe that any person can sustain objectivity toward someone that they perceive as a threat to their livelihood?

In fact this is at the center of the scandal with the IRS and others. In recent months, the rise of the “government class” has received its due notice. Jonah Goldberg had an excellent column this week on the “naked self-interest of the government-worker class,” which gets at why this public airing of grievances is so uncomfortable for Democrats. Mark Steyn went further in warning that “when the supposedly impartial civil service uses those powers in the service of the ruling party” we are witnessing something akin to the “merger of party and state.” Others have noted, correctly, that the American presidency has become a bit royal for a republic–though without the nonpartisan class and grace of the queen.

But not nearly enough attention is being paid to the man who did more to bring this about than perhaps any other president: Jack Kennedy.

Kennedy did this in two ways, one of substance and the other of style. The substance was his executive order permitting the unionization of federal workers. It was not the first time public employees were allowed to unionize, but it was groundbreaking at the federal level and it opened the floodgates. In many ways, state and local public unions are more a drag on the budgets that dictate Americans’ tax bills. But federal unions have an important advantage: power.

The power of the Department of Veterans Affairs to stymie reforms goes much further than unionization. But that’s part of it. When the VA scandal hit, there were many suggestions on how to begin to put the pieces back together. The least surprising was reported by the Hill in late May: “The Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal can be solved by giving the department more money, a top federal employees union said Thursday.”

But where was all the money going that was supposed to be helping veterans in the first place? To the unions, as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel pointed out:

Manhattan Institute scholar Diana Furchtgott-Roth recently detailed Office of Personnel Management numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). On May 25, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth reported on MarketWatch that the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100% “full-time,” receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of “official” time in fiscal 2011, a 23% increase from 2010.

Moreover, as Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) noted in a 2013 letter to Mr. Shinseki, the vast majority of these “official” timers were nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.

Federal union leaders were shaking down taxpayers to line their pockets with money that was intended to treat veterans. The only appropriate response from federal union leaders to this revelation should have been pure, unadulterated, soul-gripping shame. Their response instead was to ask for more money.

The style with which Kennedy helped wreck the presidency was in its self-conscious recreation of a palace and its royal court. Probably the best to chronicle this was Sally Bedell Smith. In her book on the Kennedys in the White House, her cast of characters is listed under the heading “The Kennedy Court.” Here’s her description of the royal atmosphere:

The Kennedys may have been Democrats, full of compassion for the poor and dispossessed, but the image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many people familiar with the administration. The British political philosopher and formidable Oxford don Isaiah Berlin—a guest at several private White House dinners—saw the Kennedys as “Bonapartist,” finding parallels in Napoleon’s brothers who, like Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general and Edward M. Kennedy as U.S. senator, held responsible positions in the government. …

The columnist Stewart Alsop complained after one year of the Kennedy administration, “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies in waiting—actual or would be.” As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress: from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, her official dress designer and self-described “de facto courtier close to the king and queen.” “She said this many times,” Cassini added.

What JFK did, then, was to lay the foundation for a federal government with an explicitly royalist identity and a unionized government class with job security but no accountability, and who had the power to disrupt the lives and the rights of the citizens who had other ideas about American democracy. There has been a tendency to romanticize the Kennedy presidency, not just by liberals who miss the monarchical elitism but by conservatives who appreciate Kennedy’s tax cutting and internationalist foreign policy. The nostalgia is misplaced, for the Kennedy presidency was damaging to the American project and we are still paying for it today.

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