Listen to the breath,
the unbroken message that creates itself from the silence,
it rushes towards you now, from those youthfully dead.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies”
Fifty years. That’s how long it’s been since John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Half a century can seem so brief – just a flash in time – or so terribly long, an endless walk through dusty corridors.
Presidents are the products of the times at least as much they are the shapers of them. They ride into office on great waves of half-understood historical forces, waves that can make them transformative leaders or capsize them without warning.
It’s tempting to search for our own reflection in the presidencies of the past, in “what if?” exercises, in projecting more idealism and vision onto them than they actually possessed.
None of these exercises seem more misguided then the recent spate of right-wing commentary suggesting that President Kennedy was really a conservative. Kennedy was many things, but “conservative” was not one of them. That idea calls upon the person of conscience to, in German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “gently remove the semblance of injustice that … hinders spirits from a pure moving-on.”
Kennedy as Conservative
George F. Will offers the most thoughtful argument for Kennedy as conservative – and fails. Watching him attempting to make his case is like watching a Boy Scout trying to light a match with his breath. The depth of his determination makes his failure that much more poignant.
Will only offers three specific arguments for the “Kennedy as conservative” case. The first is a Look magazine headline from 1946 which describes the future president as a “fighting-Irish conservative.” But that’s the relic of an era when “conservative” had a different meaning and little was known about Kennedy’s actual views.
Will then pivots to the Vietnam War, citing Kennedy’s alleged commitment to that conflict as evidence of his conservative bona fides. But Will only convinces us that he himself is a creature of the 1960s, when support for military intervention was assumed to be the “conservative” position. The opposite has often been true in American history. Interventionism has often been seen as liberal and isolationism as conservative.
The warlike nature of today’s conservatives is more likely the result of the campaign donations they receive from big defense contractors, along with their hostility toward Muslims. Kennedy’s military doctrine was incomplete, but even at its most aggressive it had nothing to do with conservatism.
“Conservative” Is a Relative Term
That leaves us with Will’s economic argument, which is based on Kennedy’s stated support for “a creative tax cut creating more jobs and income and eventually more revenue.” John Kenneth Galbraith was right at the time when he called that a “Republican speech.”
But it is Republicanism, not liberalism, that has changed. Kennedy-era Republicans boasted of the increases in Social Security and union membership under President Eisenhower. They lauded Eisenhower’s stimulative federal highway program.
Kennedy’s statement needs to be put in the proper historical context. When Kennedy gave that speech the top marginal tax rate – the tax rate for the nation’s highest levels of income – was 91 percent. The “conservative” cut passed after Kennedy’s death lowered it to 77 percent. Today it’s 39.5 percent, a figure Kennedy couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have supported.
Two liberal economists, Nobel laureate Peter Diamond of MIT and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, recently concluded that the most effective top tax rate – the one that would create the most “jobs and income and eventually more revenue” – is 73 percent. When today’s conservatives embrace rates like that, we’ll call John Kennedy a conservative.
The Real JFK
But if Kennedy wasn’t a conservative, what was he? One way to understand a person is by seeking echoes of their personality in their family and friends. Kennedy’s brothers and heirs were and are unapologetically liberal. Even his father, the notorious Joe, became the scourge of Wall Street when FDR appointed him to clean up that den of iniquity as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Ah, Joe, we miss your regulator’s hand today.
During his brief presidency Kennedy fought for civil rights – albeit cautiously, as he tried to preserve the Democratic coalition with Southern Dixiecrats. And yet, for all his pragmatism and caution, Kennedy was attuned to his time. He understood that he had ridden into office on waves of change. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson reminds us, he demanded a strong civil rights plank in the 1960 Democratic platform.
JFK was, as Rev. Jackson writes, “a cautious, pragmatic and stylish politician … a moderate in temperament and politics.” In that respect, at least, he was not unlike the current occupant of the Oval Office.
But when the bells of history rang in 1962, Kennedy heard them. When men, women, and children were teargassed and the University of Mississippi became a battleground for justice, Kennedy responded with the full authority of his office and the full grace of his rhetorical gifts.
The bells of history are ringing again. They can be heard in the stories of the homeless, the innocent ones whose houses have been lost to foreclosure. They can be felt in the trials of the young generation whose hopes for the future are being dimmed by unemployment, in the fears of an older generation who face an uncertain retirement, in the growing numbers of the poor and the dying hopes of the middle class.
In his finest moments, John F. Kennedy heard the music of his moment and made it better. That’s not conservatism, or centrism, or even pragmatism. It’s leadership. We can never know the “real JFK,” but we can honor the truth when we honor his memory.
“Speak,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. “Speak, and be witness.” The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death demands no less of us.