The JFK we had
What he was, he was:
What he is fated to become
Depends on us.
— W.H. Auden, “Elegy for JFK” (1964)
BOSTON — He has become fodder for an interpretation industry toiling to make his life malleable enough to soothe the sensitivities and serve the agendas of the interpreters. The quantity of writing about him is inversely proportional to the brevity of his presidency.
He did not have history-shaping effects comparable to those of his immediate predecessor or successor. Dwight Eisenhower was one of three Americans (with George Washington and Ulysses Grant) who were world-historic figures before becoming president, and Lyndon Johnson was second only to Franklin Roosevelt as a maker of the modern welfare state and second to none in using law to ameliorate America’s racial dilemma.
The New York Times’ executive editor calls John F. Kennedy “the elusive president”; The Washington Post calls him “the most enigmatic” president. Most libidinous, certainly; most charming, perhaps. But enigmatic and elusive? Many who call him difficult to understand seem eager to not understand him. They present as puzzling or uncharacteristic aspects of his politics about which he was consistent and unambiguous. For them, his conservative dimension is an inconvenient truth. Ira Stoll, in “JFK, Conservative,” tries to prove too much but assembles sufficient evidence that his book’s title is not merely provocative.
A Look magazine headline in June 1946 read: “A Kennedy Runs for Congress: The Boston-bred scion of a former ambassador is a fighting-Irish conservative.” Neither his Cold War anti-communism, which was congruent with President Harry Truman’s, nor his fiscal conservatism changed dramatically during his remaining 17 years.
Visitors to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum here, on the salt water across which his ancestors came as immigrants and on which he sailed his yacht, watch Kennedy press conferences, such as that of Sept. 12, 1963, when, responding to a question about Vietnam, he said his policy was to “win the war there” — “That is why some 25,000 Americans have traveled 10,000 miles to participate in that struggle.” He added: “We are not there to see a war lost.” His answer was consistent with a 1956 speech calling Vietnam “the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike,” adding: “This is our offspring — we cannot abandon it.”
A few years later, with the war going badly, several Kennedy aides claimed that he had been planning to liquidate the intervention. But five months after the assassination, Robert Kennedy told an oral history interviewer that his brother “had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam.”
Interviewer: “There was never any consideration given to pulling out?”
Interviewer: “The president was convinced that we had to keep, had to stay in there … “
Interviewer: ” … And couldn’t lose it.”
As president, JFK chose as Treasury secretary a Republican Wall Street banker, C. Douglas Dillon, who 30 years after the assassination remembered Kennedy as “financially conservative.” Kennedy’s fiscal policy provided an example and ample rhetoric for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts. Kennedy endorsed “a creative tax cut creating more jobs and income and eventually more revenue.” In December 1962, he said:
“The federal government’s most useful role is … to expand the incentives and opportunities for private expenditures. … It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.”
John Kenneth Galbraith — Harvard economist, liberal polemicist and Kennedy’s ambassador to India — called this “the most Republican speech since McKinley.” It was one of many. Kennedy was driving to the Dallas Trade Mart to propose “cutting personal and corporate income taxes.” Kennedy changed less during his life than liberalism did after his death.
The Kennedy library here where he lived draws substantially fewer visitors than does Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, where he was murdered. This is emblematic of a melancholy fact: How he died looms larger in the nation’s mind than how he lived. His truncated life remains an unfinished book and hence a temptation to writers who would complete it as they wish it had been written. This month, let it suffice to say what Stephen Spender did in “The Truly Great” (1932):
“Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun.
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.”
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.