There are, by now, thousands of books on the Kennedy presidency’s thousand days, and 2013 has brought dozens more to coincide with 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. But in JFK, Conservative, Ira Stoll, former managing editor of the New York Sun and current editor of FutureofCapitalism.com, has managed something truly original—and truly odd. This may be the first book-length attempt at Kennedy hagiography from the Right.
Stoll lays it on pretty thick: in his telling, JFK was a great president, a good man, and—no kidding—a good Catholic. Moreover, Kennedy’s policies—his “tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom”—show that he was, “by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.”
It’s a cramped, reductionist account of conservatism, one that collapses the entire political tradition into its neoconservative variant. But an even less charitable person than I could make the case that it’s a fair approximation of “actually existing conservatism,” and Stoll’s thesis has already received a fair bit of praise from commentators on the Right.
God help us. If our 35th president—fiscally profligate, contemptuous of civil liberties, and criminally reckless abroad—is a paragon of modern conservatism, conservatism is in even worse shape than I thought. Let’s review the Kennedy record.
A Fiscal Conservative?
“A careful examination of Kennedy’s domestic policy record,” Stoll writes, “shows a president who kept a tight rein on federal spending and who chose to make Medicare, fighting poverty, and even civil rights lower priorities than other issues, such as free trade and tax cuts.”
It’s true that, as president, Kennedy put any legislative assault on poverty on the back burner, to be pursued after November ’64, if at all, and repeatedly told his advisers to keep him out of “this Goddamned civil rights mess.” What about that allegedly “tight rein on federal spending”? Here Stoll’s case is exceptionally weak.
Eisenhower cut the Pentagon budget by 27 percent; Kennedy ran on a platform of defense hikes and made good on his promise, reinvigorating the military-industrial complex and growing the armed forces by some 200,000 active-duty troops. That shouldn’t count against him, Stoll suggests: real conservatives spend on guns and skimp on butter, and JFK favored “spending restraint applied to everything except defense-related programs or those related to the Cold War.”
The space program should be viewed in that light, Stoll argues: a National Greatness project that “would help to impress those choosing between freedom and communism.” He quotes Kennedy telling his NASA director: “everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians … Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space.”
But here again, Ike was the better conservative. Eisenhower saw the moon project as a “stunt”—the human equivalent of a stupid pet trick. “Anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts,” he told a group of Republican congressmen in 1963.
As evidence of JFK’s fiscal parsimony, Stoll notes that Kennedy trimmed the salaries of top White House staffers and once got really exercised upon learning that the White House had six gardeners on the payroll. “‘Why,’ he said,” according to budget director David Bell, “‘the man we have handling our grounds at Hyannis Port could do this whole thing with the assistance of maybe a boy.’”
It’s not clear whether JFK ever laid off any White House gardeners, but his overall record on domestic spending restraint was nothing to write home about. Nondefense, non-interest spending went up over 8 percent a year on Kennedy’s watch. By that measure, Kennedy was one of the most profligate presidents of the modern era.
Stoll’s case for JFK’s domestic conservatism rests heavily on his commitment to a tax cut passed three months after his death. On November 22, Stoll notes, Kennedy was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart to stump for reduced rates: “he was fighting for a tax cut to the end”—the martyred Christ of supply-side economics (or military Keynesianism, depending how you look at it). Tax cuts weren’t a conservative litmus test at the time, however; as Stoll notes, Goldwater feared that the Kennedy cuts “would lead to deficits, inflation, and even bankruptcy.”
New Frontiers in State Power at Home
Goldwater later recanted, and most conservatives today would no doubt side with Kennedy. But surely there’s more to conservatism than what can fit on Art Laffer’s napkin. When we’re evaluating our 35th president’s conservative credentials, it ought to matter that his administration conducted a systematic effort to silence the Right. In fact, on two of the Tea Partiers’ betes noires, abuse of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine and politicization of the IRS, the Kennedy administration practically wrote the playbook.
A key document here is the 1961 “Reuther Memorandum,” a 24-page strategy memo commissioned by Bobby Kennedy and drafted by United Auto Workers leaders Walter and Victor Reuther with liberal attorney Joseph Rauh. It called for “deliberate Administration policies and programs to contain the radical right from further expansion and in the long run to reduce it to its historic role of the impotent lunatic fringe.”
The Reuther Memorandum took a capacious view of “the radical right,” using the term broadly enough to include Senator Barry Goldwater and groups like the Volker Fund, which provided support to Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and others.
“Prompt revocation” of tax-exempt status “in a few cases might scare off a substantial part of the big money now flowing into these tax exempt organizations,” the Reuthers argued. Likewise, the Federal Communications Commission should combat “free [air] time for the radical right” by taking “measures to encourage stations to assign comparable time for an opposing point of view on a free basis.”
Accordingly, the Kennedy Team forged new frontiers in what Nixon White House counsel John Dean later called “the use of the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” As historian John A. Andrew III documents in his 2002 book Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixon, the Kennedy White House was “a driving force” behind the IRS’s Ideological Organizations Project, a “far-reaching effort to undercut the power of the right” with politically motivated audits and challenges to tax-exempt status.
On the broadcasting front, Kennedy campaign aides and the Democratic National Committee used surrogates to demand equal time from stations running commentary by presidential critics. Bill Ruder, assistant secretary of commerce under JFK, put it plainly: “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.”
You won’t learn any of that from Stoll, whose sole reference to Walter Reuther is an attempt to shore up Kennedy’s right-wing bona fides by noting that the UAW leader was “infuriated” when Kennedy picked LBJ as a running mate instead of a northern liberal.
Stoll does spend a few pages on JFK’s response to the so-called “steel crisis” of 1962—the Kennedys’ term for US manufacturers’ decision to raise prices by some 3.5 percent. Furiously denouncing the decision at a press conference, Kennedy invoked the “ask not” line from his Inaugural Address: “Some time ago I asked each American to consider wheat he would do for his country and I asked the steel companies. In the last 24 hours we had their answer.”
He put it more pungently in private: “They fucked us and now we’ve got to fuck them”—with wiretaps, subpoenas, IRS audits, and FBI raids. It’s important to remember, Stoll argues, that Kennedy’s actions here were “motivated largely by a conservative desire to fight inflation.” Still, he’s willing to concede that Kennedy “carried the campaign against the steel companies and executives further than appropriate in a free-market economy”—a rather tepid condemnation from somebody who runs the “future of capitalism” website.
Elsewhere, Stoll praises JFK for his casual disregard of Americans’ constitutional rights. When President Truman vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act, saying it would “put the Government of the United States in the thought-control business” by establishing a “Subversive Activities Control Board,” Rep. Kennedy voted to override the veto, showing his willingness to “stray from the liberal line as a congressman.” Later, Stoll defends JFK from the scurrilous charge that he supported freedom of the mails, explaining that the Kennedy administration went to court to defend its right to prevent US leftists from reading “communist political propaganda” like The Peking Review.
If contempt for civil liberties is a mark of pride, then the Kennedy team had plenty to be proud about. Among other abuses, in 1962, JFK ordered his CIA director to violate the agency’s charter by wiretapping members of the Washington press corps. In Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, Tim Weiner notes that “long before Nixon created his ‘plumbers’ unit of CIA veterans to stop news leaks, Kennedy used the agency to spy on Americans,” setting “a precedent that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush would follow.”
Criminal Recklessness Abroad
Of course, JFK thought his real legacy would be forged in foreign policy. “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for the President to handle, isn’t it?” a shaken President Kennedy said in a private meeting with his 1960 opponent, Richard Nixon, “I mean who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”
“This” was the Bay of Pigs debacle, which had come to a bloody end three days before. The botched invasion-by-proxy contained, in microcosm, virtually every element of the Kennedy pathology in foreign affairs: incompetence, criminal recklessness, and the subordination of all other values—law, truth, human life—to the Kennedys’ political ambitions. How JFK thought he could keep American involvement secret after it had been been reported on the front page of the New York Times remains a mystery, but he tried all the same, publicly insisting that the US had not been involved “in any way.”
The Kennedys’ humiliation over the Bay of Pigs led to Operation Mongoose, an RFK-led effort to overthrow and/or assassinate Castro; “let’s get the hell on with it,” Bobby urged, at one point asking the CIA director if he could gin up a pretext for war by staging a phony attack on Guantanamo Bay (he demurred).
Operation Mongoose and the Bay of Pigs, along with the 1961 deployment of Jupiter missiles to Turkey, helped set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world ever came to nuclear holocaust.
In his treatment of the 13 days, Stoll seems determined to “rescue” Kennedy’s reputation from the liberal narrative that he helped avert a world war by showing more restraint than his military advisers. That claim, Stoll says, ignores that “there were those inside and outside the administration who counseled that even the quarantine was too hard-line a step”—among them, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who argued “that the Cuban missiles did not materially change the strategic equation.”
Stoll basically admits that Bundy was right. “If averting war had been Kennedy’s only goal,” Stoll writes, “he unnecessarily put a lot of lives at risk to achieve it. But it was not his only goal. The real reason Kennedy was a hero is that, through skillful use of American military power … he got the USSR to dismantle and remove the missiles. Kennedy faced down the Soviet Communists and won.”
Won what? The preservation of the Kennedys’ political viability, mainly. The White House taping system installed by JFK records this exchange between the JFK and his brother after the president ordered the naval blockade: RFK: “There wasn’t any choice … you woulda been impeached.” JFK: “I woulda been impeached.” When, after the quarantine and nuclear staredown, the administration made the sane choice to (secretly) trade missiles for missiles, RFK “insisted on returning to [the Soviet ambassador] the formal Soviet letter affirming the agreement,” because it could cause “irreparable harm to my political career in the future”.
It’s a strange view that favors confrontation and foreign-policy “toughness” as ends in themselves, even at the risk of nuclear annihilation. But then Stoll has a lot of strange views on foreign policy. On Vietnam, where JFK had deployed some 16,000 troops by 1963, Stoll writes, “President Kennedy and the national security team he brought into office have been faulted for leading the country into the Vietnam War without clear objectives … a formal declaration of war [or] an exit strategy”; however, “that criticism should be discounted for [sic] the fact that South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam only in April of 1975.” (If you never end the war, you never have to ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake.)
Stoll’s bill of particulars against Nixon contains several items you don’t normally see in conservative critiques of RMN: he “opened American ties with Communist China”; he “used the word ‘peace’ or a variation of it fifteen times” in his first Inaugural, and “he unilaterally renounced the use of biological weapons.” Nobody ever asks, Stoll gripes, “whether, if America had withheld recognition, the Chinese Communist government would have expired when the one in Moscow did.” (I wonder why?)
Polishing the Icon
Stranger still are Stoll’s attempts to rehabilitate Kennedy as a person. Not even Sorenson, Salinger, nor Schlesinger ever polished the icon as slavishly as does Stoll. He says little about JFK’s manifold health problems (no mention of Addison’s disease) other than to repeat the Kennedy spin about old football and war injuries. Stoll spends a whole chapter on PT 109 without ever wondering how in the hell a lumbering 2,000-ton Japanese destroyer managed to sneak up on and T-bone Lieutenant Kennedy’s light, maneuverable 80-foot ship, the Navy’s “fastest warship afloat.” (“That whole story was more fucked up than Cuba,” Jack privately remarked years later.)
Then there’s this: “Kennedy died and was buried as he lived—as a Catholic.” Among other things, he didn’t eat bacon for breakfast on Fridays, and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis—while he brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust to avoid losing face politically—Jack went to Mass a couple of times. Stoll: “What did Kennedy do to keep himself calm during this period? He prayed.”
That’s nice to know, but judging by his personal conduct, JFK was Catholic mainly in a Borgia pope sense. “The women, secretaries and stars, the wives of friends, were symbols and rewards of aggressive privilege,” Richard Reeves writes in 1993’s President Kennedy: A Profile in Power: “‘we’re a bunch of virgins, married virgins,’ said one young staff member, Fred Dutton, the secretary of the Cabinet. “And he’s like God, fucking anybody he wants to anytime he feels like it’”—as well as, on occasion, “subjecting those close to him to extreme humiliation.”
Stoll seems indignant about this aspect of Kennedy revisionism, complaining of “lurid exaggerations” about JFK’s sex life by “sensationalist biographers,” and muttering that, anyway, Joe, Sr. had set a bad example of “inappropriately close relations with attractive women other than his spouse.”
As far as what Kennedy stood for politically, Reeves got closer to the mark, though he put it too mildly: John F. Kennedy “had little ideology beyond anti-Communism and faith in active, pragmatic government.” Behind the curtain, there’s nothing much there save appetite and powerlust: “America’s prince” looks more like the cult of the presidency’s Dorian Gray.
Stoll’s right that JFK doesn’t deserve the liberal adulation he still enjoys. But neither is his sordid legacy anything conservatives should seek to appropriate.
Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.