The labels of today for the politicians of yesterday

I should try doing this sometime — interviewing myself:

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 friends 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 notJFK, 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.”

To quote Reagan: Well …

It is difficult at best to use today’s political labels to describe politicians of the past. Were the Founding Fathers conservative? By today’s definition, to be “conservative” in the late 1700s would have been to support the established order, the British. (The political party in charge in the British Parliament at the time? The Tories, also known as the Conservative Party.) No one thinks of today’s Republican Party as supporting minority rights, but the Republican Party was created to oppose slavery, and Democrats put Jim Crow laws into place in the South. (The number of Democrats who are members of the Ku Klux Klan is truly embarrassing.) There are those who claim that Abraham Lincoln was essentially fascist for starting the Civil War.

It is impossible to posit with any degree of certainty what, say, the Kennedy of 1963 would support or oppose if plopped into 2013. The group of conservatives who favor economic growth through tax cuts didn’t really exist in Kennedy’s day, though small-government conservatives or libertarians did. Kennedy supported civil rights for blacks, and one can safely assume he (would have) supported civil rights for other ethnic minorities. But would have Kennedy supported equal rights for women? Would Kennedy have supported gay rights? Would John Kennedy have felt for the plight of the poor close to what Bobby Kennedy did? Would JFK have aligned with the environmentalist movement? Would Kennedy have agreed with Barack Obama’s hatred of football? (More on that tomorrow.) An affirmative answer to any of those questions results in another question: How do you know?

There’s little question that Kennedy was more conservative as president than either of his political brothers. (On the other hand, Robert Kennedy worked in the 1950s for the House Un-American Affairs Committee, which included a senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy. Stoll’s note about JFK’s not voting to censure McCarthy is new information to me, and perhaps to reflexive McCarthy-haters in this state.) JFK was a Cold Warrior, not the peacenik some conclude he was based on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War got the U.S. into Vietnam. RFK’s record on the Soviet Union is less clear, and Ted Kennedy certainly was not a Cold Warrior. (Unlike his brother against Richard Nixon, Teddy didn’t run against Jimmy Carter in 1980 because of the latter’s weakness toward the USSR; perhaps he would have been more successful had he attacked Carter from the right, since there still were national-security Democrats in those days.)

Former U.S. Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole claims that Reagan would not be welcome in today’s Republican Party. With all due respect to Sen. Dole, that is a ludicrous assertion unsupported by evidence other than dislike of who is leading today’s GOP. (Dole might be more correct in asserting that he wouldn’t be welcome in today’s GOP, not because of his political positions, but because the GOP should be espousing much smaller government, and Dole wasn’t really about smaller government.) It’s not really a news flash to observe that the gulf between the two parties has widened considerably since JFK’s day.

Dole and those who agree with his assertion engage in the Everybody Who Disagrees with Me Is an Extremist fallacy of political thought. Dole (I’d say perhaps because he was unsuccessful at getting elected president himself, but that would be cruel) also failed to notice one of the cardinal rules of politics, that every party in power rallies around its president  or governor. If Reagan were president today, those in the GOP who disagreed with Reagan’s positions on, say, immigration, would be almost totally silent. It does not reflect well on Democrats that they refuse to criticize Barack Obama, but there it is.

Others claim Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t be a Republican today, generally basing that assertion on taking his farewell address (specifically the part about the “military–industrial complex” substantially out of context. Compare that part of his speech …

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

… with what preceded it …

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle – with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

… and followed it:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Eisenhower’s entire speech was about finding balance. If that doesn’t fit today’s GOP, it certainly doesn’t fit today’s Democratic Party either. And that is, of course, the direct result of the spiraling growth of government since JFK’s day. Forget what the top income tax rate was in JFK’s day — government is much larger, controls much more, and influences our lives in much more negative ways than in JFK’s day.

(As for those who claim that Richard Nixon wouldn’t be welcome in today’s GOP either: You’re welcome to him.)

Stoll the columnist didn’t ask Stoll the author (I wonder if the author got to see the columnist’s questions in advance) about an essential feature of JFK’s personality that influenced his politics — JFK’s bone-deep cynicism, which Sorensen and Schlesinger managed to obscure from the historical record largely through Sorensen’s soaring speeches. (One thing Sorensen managed to miss: JFK’s comment shortly after taking office about how surprised he was to find that things were indeed as bad as he claimed during the campaign.) Barbara Sinatra’s observations about Kennedy’s faith commitment is spot on, because serial violation of one of the Ten Commandments is not really a demonstration of one’s faith. (As I pointed out during Bill Clinton’s presidency, if someone is willing to violate vows made before God and in public, in what else should he be trusted?)

Kennedy wanted to create the Peace Corps and get the U.S. into space because of the Soviet Union. That’s not cynicism. But the historical method is much more murky about Kennedy’s actual commitment to civil rights beyond the votes of the disenfranchised blacks of the South. (Which would be an example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.) And as a member of a wealthy Irish Catholic family, Kennedy never had to experience the bigotry that those of his religion or ethnic background but not his family’s affluence had to face when they came to the U.S. Sorensen and Schlesinger managed to wipe that fact off the historical record too, as neatly as JFK’s youngest brother managed to obscure what happened the night Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Teddy’s Oldsmobile.

In a sense, Kennedy is a perfect partially blank canvas five decades minus a month from his death. He didn’t even get three years into his term in office. You can apply any label you want to him — conservative, liberal, idealist — and there isn’t enough factual record to argue otherwise.

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