By Ira Stoll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages
Is Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative just a bit of high-end trolling of liberals? Nothing wrong with that, of course. Turnabout is fair play. The left has been cheekily suggesting that if Ronald Reagan were still alive, he might be an “Obamacon” like his national-security adviser Colin Powell—or at least more likely that than a Tea Party Republican. Liberals love to note that the 40th president raised taxes, worked with Democrats to save Social Security, and gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants. By the end of Reagan’s second term, he was even making nice with the Evil Empire. Clearly the Gipper grew in office, they approvingly and condescendingly observe. Ronald Reagan, liberal.
In reality, progressives don’t actually believe Reagan was anything other than a racist, warmongering conservative who massively cut taxes for his greedy CEO friends while the middle class withered, the homeless froze, Mandela rotted, and the band played on. They most certainly do not love the 1980s.
Doubtless, Stoll understates, perhaps impishly so, potential progressive reaction to his thesis: “Understanding Kennedy as a political conservative may make liberals uncomfortable by crowning conservatism with the halo of Camelot.” Yes, only slightly less uncomfortable than a film version of the Kennedy presidency starring Stephen Baldwin as JFK and Elisabeth Hasselbeck as Jackie that would suggest that in 1980 JFK, had he lived, would have backed the Gipper, played by Gary Sinise.
But when you take a look at the considerable evidence Stoll amasses, that last bit is actually plausible. What’s more, you can really see how JFK might have been aghast at his brother and daughter passing the Kennedy torch to Obama. Stoll makes the case that Kennedy was a full-spectrum, three-legged-stool conservative—peace through strength, free enterprise, Judeo-Christian values (we’ll get to the canoodling with starlets, molls, and interns in a moment)—who never “grew in office,” as many biographers and aides later argued.
The reality of Kennedy’s economic policy is most relevant for today’s political and policy debates. Obama Democrats believe that the recipe for resolving America’s economic troubles is something called “middle-out” economics: higher taxes on the rich and business to fuel government spending on the less wealthy, from infrastructure projects to ObamaCare subsidies. This strategy to redistribute, stimulate, and consume will theoretically return America to the shared prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.
But when the United States faced a lull after the immediate postwar boom, the centerpiece of the Kennedy economic strategy wasn’t government stimulus but an across-the-board tax cut on labor, investment, and corporate income. This is something liberals hate being reminded of, as was evident in 2009, when then U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown in Massachusetts ran a campaign ad using footage of a Kennedy speech pushing his tax-cut plan; it cleverly morphed Kennedy into Brown. The state Democratic Party chairman at the time said “Brown’s effort to compare himself to President Kennedy reaches a new level of absurdity. Scott Brown is no John Kennedy.”
Nor did Democrats much like it when Reagan used the Kennedy tax cuts to justify his own rate reductions. But they dismiss the comparison by pointing out that one can be a good Keynesian and support temporary tax cuts to increase demand. And indeed Kennedy did argue that his tax cuts would put more money in people’s pockets. But the president also highlighted, as Stoll shows again and again, the long-term supply-side, pro-investment impact of his plan. Kennedy didn’t see tax cuts as just a temporary fillip, which is why he demanded they be permanent. As Stoll quotes Kennedy: “Let me emphasize, however, that I have not been talking about a different kind of tax cut, a quick tax cut to prevent a new recession.”
Kennedy also specifically and repeatedly rejected calls to drop his tax-cut plan in favor of a debt-financed spending plan, arguing that “private consumers, employers, and investors should be given full opportunity first.” He felt so strongly about this that he brought Senator Albert Gore Sr. aboard Air Force One to persuade him of the merits of the tax-cut plan. But despite Kennedy’s best efforts, Gore continued to favor more government spending on health, education, and transportation, worrying that “once taxes were cut, they are not likely to be reimposed.” Kennedy intended to make the tax cuts the centerpiece of his reelection campaign, a promise that would eventually be fulfilled in 1964 by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. And had Kennedy lived, his second term would have featured calls for further rate reductions, said Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon.
Liberals will concede that Kennedy was every bit the cold warrior when he came into office, but they say he evolved, as Reagan supposedly did. A key milestone in that transformation, allegedly, was the dovish “A Strategy for Peace” speech at American University in June 1963, when Kennedy announced a nuclear test-ban initiative and the unilateral suspension of atmospheric nuclear testing. Yet Stoll points out that just two weeks after that came the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Germany, “an unequivocal statement about the impossibility of working with the Soviets.” And just a month before Dallas, Kennedy outlined the realistic limits to any Cold War thaw: “Let us distinguish between our hopes and our illusions, always hoping for steady progress toward less critically dangerous relations with the Soviets but never laboring under any illusions about Communist methods or Communist goals.” There, Stoll, says, was the Kennedy doctrine in a nutshell: peace through strength. The long twilight struggle would have continued in a second Kennedy term; it would not have evolved into defense-cutting détente.
Perhaps an even more important foreign-policy question: What would Kennedy have done about Vietnam? For liberals, there can be no other answer than that Kennedy would have pushed for withdrawal. There has never been a “Hey, Hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today” scenario for the liberal icon. And ex-Kennedy advisers like Kenneth O’Donnell usually offer such reassurance based on whispered conversations with their boss. But Stoll notes a 1964 interview with Robert Kennedy, in which the president’s brother said JFK had never given any consideration to pulling out. Indeed, even as late as March 1968, RFK himself, while favoring a halt to American bombing, called any unilateral pullout of ground troops “unacceptable.” Assuming at least some shared geopolitical thinking between the brothers, a rapid post-election bugout hardly seems the done deal that O’Donnell, Ted Sorensen, and other old Kennedy White House veterans have made it out to be.
Finally there is the matter of his personal comportment. Stoll’s portrayal of Kennedy as a devout defender of the Christian faith against atheistic Communism might be as plausible as Kennedy the unrepentant cold warrior and supply-sider if not for his serial philandering. Stoll quotes Barbara Sinatra: “Jack was a devout Catholic who went to church to pray for his family every day in between hitting on all the girls, which I thought strange.”
Stoll, who helped run the New York Sun and previously published a biography of Samuel Adams, devotes just a few paragraphs to Kennedy’s hijinks. Stoll’s possible explanations for Kennedy’s apparent hypocrisy range from the bad example set by family patriarch Joseph Kennedy to the side effects of medications for various illnesses. But Stoll never wavers in his conviction about Kennedy’s conviction, noting JFK took frequent opportunity to make the Cold War into a holy war—“freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny”—with a public fervency that was matched, by many accounts, in private with regular prayer and attendance at Mass. Perhaps he was so ritually diligent as a way of putting “a guise of godliness over a crude adulterer,” Stoll speculates, but finds more likely that “he knew he was sinning and felt a need to compensate and confess.”
Who could know the inner workings of JFK’s heart and soul? Ultimately such analysis is probably unimportant when it comes to understanding his political legacy. It was the Democratic Party that evolved, that shifted left, not Kennedy. Ideas and actions plausibly, even persuasively, suggest Kennedy was a man of the right when he took the presidential oath, continuing right up until November 22, 1963. Not a story Chris Matthews or Doris Kearns Goodwin will ever tell, so 50 years after Kennedy’s assassination, thankfully, Ira Stoll has.