JFK Was an Unapologetic LiberalRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: JFK, Kennedys
David Greenberg, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
In the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the hype—the movies and books and magazine covers, the roundups and reminiscences and retrospectives—is in overdrive. How can America resist another JFK love-in? The popular adoration of Kennedy, five decades on, puzzles pundits and historians, who note, correctly, that he neither led the nation through war nor racked up a legislative record on par with that of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson.
Some explanations for the discrepancy are obvious: His youth and good looks. His vigor, grace, and cool. The facility with which he projected this image through television, of which he was the first presidential master. And the assassination itself, which by taking Kennedy in his prime allowed Americans to spin fantasies of greatness unrealized.
Yet neither the Camelot mystique nor Kennedy’s premature death can fully explain his continuing appeal. There was no cult of Warren Harding in 1973, no William McKinley media blitz in 1951. I would submit that Kennedy’s hold on us stems also from the way he used the presidency, his commitment to exercising his power to address social needs, his belief that government could harness expert knowledge to solve problems—in short, from his liberalism.
To make that case requires first correcting some misperceptions. Wasn’t JFK a cold warrior who called on Americans to gird for a “long twilight struggle”? Didn’t he drag his heels on civil rights? Didn’t he give us tax cuts a generation before Ronald Reagan? While there’s some truth to those assertions, layers of revisionism and politicized misreadings of Kennedy have come to obscure his true beliefs. During the 1960 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to make the term liberal anathema, Kennedy embraced it. A liberal, he said in one speech, “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and under that definition, he said, “I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.’”...
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