(Mis)Appropriating history

One of the “great” things about being a pundit in America is that, since most US Americans can’t be bothered to learn (or aren’t ever really taught, I’m flexible on this point) their own history, you can play with that history a lot. I mean, a lot. Peggy Noonan apparently knows this, which is why she writes bizarre columns where she pretends to have real conversations with long-dead Republican politicians (in this case Robert Taft) who just happen to say all the things Peggy would say if she were them. Why not? You can probably count the number of Republicans in 2013 who remember Robert Taft on zero fingers, so she’s free to put whatever words she wants into the guy’s mouth. Liberals/Democrats do this kind of thing too, with their too-often repeated talking point about how “Reagan would be too moderate for today’s Republican Party,” or “Reagan would be a Democrat today,” as though you could somehow divorce the arch-conservative Reagan from his 1970s-80s context, transport him to today, and expect his political views to remain exactly the same. This is silly, and it’s also self-defeating; if folks on the left are going to start claiming that Ronald Reagan was some kind of centrist moderate, then the ideological war is over and us lefties lost.

Noted Arch-Conservative John F. Kennedy. Right here he's thinking, "God, I just wish there were a food stamp program so that I could cut its benefits."
Noted Arch-Conservative John F. Kennedy. Right here he’s thinking, “God, I just wish there were a food stamp program so that I could cut its benefits.”

The conservative apex for this kind of thing has long been the dream of appropriating John F. Kennedy as some sort of conservative icon. I guess it’s easy to see why; Kennedy is universally popular nowadays, he’s well-regarded by historians (for defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, if nothing else), and because he was assassinated in the middle of his first term he doesn’t have enough of a record to make revisionism completely laughable. What other well-regarded presidential figures do conservatives have to use as an example? Bush Jr. isn’t getting them anywhere. Bush Sr. was an apostate on taxes, so he’s out. Reagan only plays well with the brethren. The only thing Ford has going for him is that he was beaten by History’s Greatest Monster. Nixon resigned the office in disgrace plus he was a little squishy on the whole “big government” thing. Eisenhower? He’s long-gone enough to be useful but then you have to contend with the 92% top tax rate and the “Military-Industrial Complex” thing, and that’s a tough slog. With some careful historiographic malpractice and the right audience (of people who don’t know their own history), Kennedy can be made into an ideological cipher, and there’s no need for complicated myth-building like there was with Reagan; the mythologizing of JFK started when he was running for office and then went into overdrive after Dallas, so the work is already done for you.

Enter into the ahistorical fray Ira Stoll, former managing editor of the New York Sun (a paper that was deeply committed to an impartial and objective view of the absolute rightness of conservatism in all things and at all times) and author of JFK: Conservative. Mr. Stoll recently wrote a piece in the always-topical Time called, and stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere before, “JFK Was a Political Conservative.” Let’s roll that beautiful bean footage:

As the U.S. prepares to mourn President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination next month, it’s worth pausing to remember that one of the things lost in Dallas along with JFK’s life was an accurate picture of his politics.

I just want to warn the reader that this bit is both the beginning and end of the “ironically correct” portion of Mr. Stoll’s essay.

The myth is on display, among other places, at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, overlooking the site where Kennedy was shot. “Massive new social programs were central to Kennedy’s New Frontier philosophy,” said one exhibit panel when I visited there. Another referred to “Kennedy’s philosophy of using induced deficits to encourage domestic fiscal growth.”

As the Washington Free Bacon Beacon (another stalwart journalistic enterprise) reports, Mr. Stoll’s withering criticism of the museum’s liberal bias has so embarrassed the museum’s leadership that they’re making unspecified updates to the collection that were already being planned before Mr. Stoll said anything, and that may or may not have anything to do with Kennedy’s political ideology. Victory!

In more candid and private moments, Kennedy’s closest aides have acknowledged as much. At one closed-door Boston gathering of Camelot veterans, Theodore Sorensen said, “Kennedy was a fiscal conservative. Most of us and the press and historians have, for one reason or another, treated Kennedy as being much more liberal than he so regarded himself at the time … in fiscal matters, he was extremely conservative, very cautious about the size of the budget.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Ted Sorensen frequently compared JFK to arch-conservative Barack Obama, so obviously he knew the Truth that Liberals Dare Not Admit.

Sorensen himself fueled this myth in his 1988 book Counselor,

Boy, this Sorensen guy was kind of all over the map. Good thing Ira Stoll knows The Truth.

in which he claimed, “In his foreign policy speeches, JFK stayed out of the terminology trap, the common tendency to label groups with names that put them beyond the pale of negotiation, such as communist, or enemy, or evil.” That’s inaccurate. At Assumption College in 1955, Kennedy spoke of the Cold War in terms of “good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.” At the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960, Kennedy said, “The enemy is the communist system itself — implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination.” And in Berlin in 1963, Kennedy said, “There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin.”

This is my favorite part of the essay, because the implicit assumption is that Only Conservatives Were Tough on Communism. See, in order to make Kennedy a conservative, it helps not only to redefine Kennedy ideologically, but also to convince your reader that “conservative” means “anybody to the right of Leon Trotsky.” Of course, this bowdlerizing of Cold War history makes Harry Truman a neoconservative, which is absurd, but thankfully Mr. Stoll won’t let that stop him.

It’s not only Kennedy’s speeches that define him as a conservative, but also his actions in office. Kennedy had run in 1960 to the right of Richard Nixon on Cuba; as Nixon recalled it in his memoir, after their first televised presidential debate, “Kennedy conveyed the image — to 60 million people — that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was.” In the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy ordered a blockade, disregarding the advice of more dovish advisers such as McGeorge Bundy, Adlai Stevenson and Robert Lovett.

…and more hawkish advisers like, oh, the Joint Chiefs, who wanted airstrikes followed by an invasion. Also, McGeorge Bundy was all over the place during the internal debates about a US response, playing devil’s advocate much to Kennedy’s irritation. Robert Kennedy’s notes from the first ExComm meeting following discovery of the missiles list Bundy as being in favor of a strike. In fact, RFK’s list only has two columns, “blockade” and “strike,” indicating that the “blockade” was in fact the more dovish of the two options that were being seriously considered. But whatever, conservative historiography has no time for “documents” when there are narratives to be created.

Some of the most perceptive students of political history — the Presidents who came after Kennedy — have grasped what Kennedy stood for. Bill Clinton, whose teenage Rose Garden handshake with JFK became a 1992 campaign commercial, chose the JFK Library in Boston as a site to push for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

I see we’re laying the groundwork for the next book in the “Conservative Rewrite of American History” Series: Bill Clinton’s Really Very Right Wing Presidency That Was Not At All Opposed in Every Respect by Conservatives.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush spoke of Kennedy in pushing their tax cuts.

What? Politicians appropriating celebrated historical figures in their rhetoric? Well now I’m really convinced!

Liberals claim that Kennedy’s tax cuts were somehow different from Reagan’s and Bush’s, and it is true that Kennedy was cutting the rates from higher levels (though loopholes and deductions meant that few actually paid the statutory high rates).

Excellent use of the Jonah Goldberg here: “Liberals claim that Kennedy’s tax cuts were somehow different from Reagan’s and Bush’s, and they were, but this is central to my point.”

With the passage of time, fewer and fewer Americans will be able to remember Kennedy firsthand, and the job of accurately transmitting his record and legacy — of passing the torch, as JFK might say — belongs to historians, museums and teachers. The least we can do to honor his memory is to get the story right.

So, basically, shorter Ira Stoll: “Hey, the farther we get from Kennedy’s life the less anybody really remembers him, so now’s the perfect time for us conservatives to start making up a bunch of crap about him to make us look better! Let’s roll!”

If your definition of “liberal” is “pacifist, patchouli-smelling atheist hippie who wants to eliminate the capitalist system,” then I guess JFK seems pretty conservative, but then again so does every other Democratic president since forever, including the last three who we’re constantly told are/were so dangerously liberal. I look forward to the Ira Stoll-esque book, to be written ~50 years from now, that makes the case that a president who took a very hard line on tracking down and killing America’s “worst enemies,” who implemented a health care reform that was previously pushed by a conservative think-tank and was (OK, not so much) projected to reduce the federal deficit, and who cut taxes for most Americans, was actually a conservative.

The downside of trying to rewrite the history of a fairly recent, very prominent figure is that you’re inevitably going to run into that figure’s own words, like JFK’s speech pushing for a “Program of Medical Care for the Aged,” or, you know, “Medicare.” Or maybe his speech accepting the nomination of the New York Liberal Party in 1960:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”


On second thought, I take it all back. If anything defines the modern conservative, it’s “…someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties…”

I–I guess JFK really was a conservative. Go figure.

Yup, definitely a JFK voter.
Yup, definitely a JFK fan.

One thought on “(Mis)Appropriating history

  1. I will give it a shot. Literature and Sufism were never my strongest areas, but I’ll put something together as time permits.

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