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JFK, Conservative

JFK, Conservative

3.3 3
by Ira Stoll

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“America, meet the real John F. Kennedy.” — Washington Times

John F. Kennedy is lionized by liberals. He inspired Lyndon Johnson to push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. His New Frontier promised increased spending on education and medical care for the elderly. He inspired Bill Clinton to go into politics. His champions insist he


“America, meet the real John F. Kennedy.” — Washington Times

John F. Kennedy is lionized by liberals. He inspired Lyndon Johnson to push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. His New Frontier promised increased spending on education and medical care for the elderly. He inspired Bill Clinton to go into politics. His champions insist he would have done great liberal things had he not been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.

But what if we’ve been looking at him all wrong? Indeed, JFK had more in common with Ronald Reagan than with LBJ. After all, JFK’s two great causes were anticommunism and tax cuts. His tax cuts, domestic spending restraint, military buildup, pro-growth economic policy, emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom — all make him, by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative. This widely debated book is must reading for conservatives and liberals alike.

“Provocative and compelling . . . Ira Stoll has succeeded in changing our very perception of Kennedy as one of liberalism’s heroes.” — Weekly Standard

“An informative analysis of the ways in which JFK did indeed evince his conservative side — he was very religious, open to a free market unencumbered by governmental interference, and staunchly anti-Communist.” — Publishers Weekly 

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jacob Heilbrunn
Stoll…provides a wonderfully mischievous analysis in JFK, Conservative. Dispensing with the traditional view of Kennedy as liberal icon, Stoll argues that he was, in fact, manifestly conservative in temperament and conviction, and that this conservatism often turned up in his policies…Whether Kennedy…should go down in history as a closet conservative is open to dispute. But Stoll's lively disputation offers a distinctive contribution to the debate.
Publishers Weekly
Stoll (Samuel Adams: A Life) makes his stance clear right from the beginning, opening with John F. Kennedy declaring, “I’m not a liberal at all.” Some 70 odd pages later, the former managing editor of the New York Sun glosses over the speech J.F.K. delivered in acceptance of the New York Liberal Party nomination in September of 1960, when the soon-to-be-president elect spoke at length of how “proud” he was to be a liberal, and what that label meant to him. Here, Stoll highlights J.F.K.’s definition of a liberal as “someone who looks ahead and not behind... someone who cares about the welfare of the people”—not someone who favors a “super state” dependent on big government and big spending. Stoll’s obvious allegiances notwithstanding, this is still an informative analysis of the ways in which J.F.K. did indeed evince his conservative side—he was very religious, open to a free market unencumbered by governmental interference, and staunchly anti-Communist. Stoll’s stated goal is to reveal the man behind the hype, yet a clear corollary aim is to wrest J.F.K. from the rhetorical and political grip of today’s Democrats. Conservatives will find plenty to enjoy here, while more open-minded left-leaners will be given pause to consider the ways in which politicians—especially in retrospect—can be said to have simultaneously occupied two very distinct camps. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"An informative analysis of the ways in which J.F.K. did indeed evince his conservative side—he was very religious, open to a free market unencumbered by governmental interference, and staunchly anti-Communist." - Publishers Weekly

"Insightful and well-researched...This volume will appeal to readers seeking an unvarnished appraisal of Kennedy policymaking." -Library Journal "Stoll makes a solid case by carefully scouring the record. A compelling textual study of how JFK became all things to all people." - Kirkus

"A wonderfully mischievous analysis...Stoll’s lively disputation offers a distinctive contribution to the debate." - New York Times Book Review "Provocative and compelling...Ira Stoll has succeeded in changing our very perception of Kennedy as one of liberalism’s heroes." -- The Weekly Standard

"Stoll convincingly argues that the president – despite his iconic status among liberals – had more in common with Republicans of the Reagan era." -- The Brooklyn Eagle

"All the more brilliant, then, is JFK, Conservative, Ira Stoll’s new biography. Stoll cracks the surface of progressive nostalgia and digs up facts that others have left covered over. He shines his miner’s flashlight on material that challenges the progressive stereotype and brings to light nuggets of information and resources that no one else has retrieved." -- Forbes

"Mr. Stoll makes a strong case that in 1960 ‘the anti-Communist, anti-big government candidate was John F. Kennedy. The one touting government programs and higher salaries for public employees was Richard Nixon,’ he writes.” -- The Wall Street Journal

"Stoll, author of a fine biography of Samuel Adams and former managing editor of the New York Sun, makes a strong case that conservatives should stake a claim to President Kennedy as one of their own. JFK, Conservative is a finely crafted brief for this interpretation — and it comes close to winning the case… Stoll makes a strong case that JFK was neither the idealistic liberal of legend nor even the pragmatic liberal that the historical consensus suggests he was…[An] excellent study." -- The National Review

"Loony" -- The New Yorker

“[Stoll] assembles sufficient evidence that his book’s title is not merely provocative.” --  George Will, The Washington Post

“JFK, Conservative is an eminently readable book, providing substantial and convincing evidence, both pro and con, as to how we should judge Kennedy’s politics. Stoll does a particularly admirable job in his devil’s advocacy, bringing forth much source material from Kennedy’s liberal supporters as a counter-balance to his thesis...Stoll’s book proves eye opening and enjoyable in showing that there were aspects of JFK’s ideology worth admiring, much to the chagrin of his leftist champions.” -- The Blaze
“I guarantee you this one's not going to be studied at the universities any time soon, so we need to study it in our own life.” -- Glenn Beck
 “It is the best book of nonfiction I have read this entire year. It is provocative. It makes you rethink a lot of things. It changes what you thought you always knew.” -- Jack Riccardi, KTSA Radio, San Antonio
 “It’s overdue…I’m surprised no one has written this directly about JFK until now...Great book.” – Howie Carr, WRKO Radio, Boston

Library Journal
John F. Kennedy's priorities as president, writes Stoll (former managing editor, New York Sun; Samuel Adams), were not to promote large government and federally funded social programs but to seek tax reductions, maintain a strong department of defense, fight communism, and reduce federal spending. In this insightful and well-researched investigation, Stoll makes a good case that Kennedy did indeed emphasize policies that are associated today with conservatism, but he clarifies that JFK's fighting communism with presidential rhetoric and large defense budgets was typical for moderate Cold War Democrats. He acknowledges that defining "conservative" or "liberal" for that period is difficult in light of how these ideologies have since changed, and states that what matters is JFK's legacy, not a political label. Most fascinating, Stoll posits that Ronald Reagan is the true inheritor of the Kennedy legacy because more than any president, he advocated the same priorities as JFK and made similar fiery, anticommunist speeches that resonated throughout the world. VERDICT Unlike Thurston Clarke's JFK's Last Hundred Days and Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot's The Liberal Hour, which portray Kennedy as a liberal work in progress, Stoll's book concludes that Kennedy always remained true to his conservative beliefs. This volume will appeal to readers seeking an unvarnished appraisal of Kennedy policymaking.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Kirkus Reviews
Former New York Sun managing editor Stoll (Samuel Adams: A Life, 2008) makes a correction to the JFK record. The author hews closely to Kennedy's speeches--from freshman Democratic congressman to senator to president--to revise what he perceives is a misrepresentation of the politician's core beliefs. Indeed, he wasn't a liberal, as defined as "big-spending, big government," and as he noted of his liberal peers in Congress, "I'm not comfortable with those people." Stoll reminds us that JFK's conservative views were "hardly a secret during his lifetime." They were recognized for what they were by the likes of Richard Nixon and Jacqueline Kennedy. JFK's views on communism and fiscal restraint encapsulated the darling conservative theories propounded by leaders who came after him, notably Ronald Reagan. Since JFK wrote or heavily edited his speeches and penned numerous books, Stoll underscores what must have been JFK's deeply held beliefs, starting with "Christian morality," which emerged from his strong Catholic upbringing. His use of biblical passages (Rose Kennedy's influence, apparently) to illustrate the struggle between good and evil as it was being played out during the Cold War is striking. Stoll sees in Kennedy's deep religious convictions, fervent anti-communist stance, wariness of labor unions, and urge to exercise fiscal restraints and free trade more than rhetorical pandering to the electorate; they are essentially guides to how he intended to steer the country. His signature policies as president, besides attempting to defeat the communists in Cuba, were cutting taxes and bolstering the military, all of which were priorities before civil rights, which even Martin Luther King Jr. complained JFK had not done enough to advance. Stoll makes a solid case by carefully scouring the record. A compelling textual study of how JFK became all things to all people.

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Read an Excerpt

“Not a Liberal”
    I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all.
    —JOHN F. KENNEDY, 1953 The photographs of kennedy after the July 4, 1946, speech caution of the hazards of drawing too much by way of conclusions from a single talk. His mother, Rose Kennedy, in pearls and a floral print dress, clings to his left arm. His grandmother, Mary Fitzgerald, clings to his right arm. His speech is rolled up in his hand like a baton. His grandfather, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a former congressman and mayor of Boston who had been the principal speaker on the same platform exactly fifty years earlier, looks dapper in a bow tie. As for Kennedy himself, the broad white smile is unmistakable, but the skinny young man in a jacket and tie, holding a speech and surrounded by proud and doting elderly relatives, looks less like a fully formed professional politician than like a high school valedictorian on graduation day.
   So if, to contemporary ears, the language of “Christian morality” and “the right of the individual against the State” and the attack on the “cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals” seems off-key for a president who has become an icon of liberalism, there is no shortage of possible explanations.
   Perhaps it was the immature speech of a young man who changed his views as he got older.
   Perhaps the young politician was being led astray by a speechwriter or staffer with strong views of his own. This, though, is unlikely. Kennedy’s White House spokesman, Pierre Salinger, recalled, “Actually, speeches were not written for the president but with him. He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. The role of the speech writer was to organize JFK’s thoughts into a rough draft, on which he himself would put the final touches. His revisions would often change it dramatically.”1 Kennedy’s secretary in the Senate and in the White House, Evelyn Lincoln, remembered, “He usually dictated a rough draft of his speeches.”2 Though Salinger and Lincoln joined Kennedy’s staff some years after 1946, editing marks on drafts of his speeches from this earlier period show a Kennedy who was more than capable of editing either speechwriters’ or his own drafts.
   Kennedy’s secretary from 1947 to 1952, Mary Davis, in an oral history interview that at times is quite negative about Kennedy (“a spoiled young man”), recalls:
When he wanted to write a speech he did it, most of it. I would say 99% of that was done by JFK himself. I can remember first time he ever called me in — I even forget what the speech was going to be on, but it was going to be a major speech, one of his first major speeches. And I thought, “Oh, oh, this young, green congressman. What’s he going to do?” No preparation. He called me in and he says, “I think we’d better get to work on the speech.” And I said “Okay, fine.” And I thought he was going to stumble around, and he’ll er, ah, um.
   I was never so startled in my life. He sat back in his chair, and it just flowed right out.3
   Salinger and Lincoln and other Kennedy aides from the presidential years may have had an interest in inflating the late president’s reputation so as to enhance, by association, their own, but here their testimony seems to match that of Davis, who quit working for Kennedy in a dispute over her salary.
   Perhaps Kennedy’s July 4, 1946, speech was a case of political pandering aimed at the electorate. This, though, is also unlikely. Less than a month before, Kennedy had won the Democratic primary for the Eleventh Congressional District in Massachusetts. It was a reliably Democratic district, and if the candidate was trying to appeal to independent or Republican crossover voters, a speech on a holiday weekend, months before the November election, would have been an odd vehicle.4
   Perhaps Kennedy’s words were just rhetoric from a hypocritical politician who, once in office, would, in his public actions and private behavior, disregard his own speech. Maybe the stress on religion was a convenient Cold War shorthand for anticommunism, a way of drawing a contrast between the United States and the atheistic Soviet Union, or a way for an ambitious Catholic to reassure and win the trust of Protestant voters.
   Or perhaps, just perhaps — and here is the most dramatic and intriguing possibility of them all — Kennedy actually, deeply, believed what he said, and would go on to serve as a congressman and senator and president of the United States according to those principles. He would take a hard line against communism in China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, and even in America’s own labor unions, weathering protests and criticisms from academia, European intellectuals, and left-wing journalists. He would be supported personally in this struggle by his own strong religious faith, and he would often refer publicly to God and to America’s religious history in his most powerful and important speeches. On the home front, he cut taxes. He restrained government spending. His presidency was markedly different from that of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
   Another aide to Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., reports that one night Kennedy remarked to him, “Liberalism and conservatism are categories of the thirties, and they don’t apply any more.”5 But of course they did, and they still do. The liberalism and conservatism of our two chief political parties have shifted over time, and it is hard for us to remember liberal Republicans or truly conservative Democrats. Yet Kennedy’s tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his military buildup, 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 all make him, by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.
   This book attempts to recover a basic truth about John Kennedy that in the years since he died has been forgotten — partly because of the work of liberal historians, partly as a result of shifts in American partisanship. Yet John Kennedy’s conservatism was hardly a secret during his lifetime. “A Kennedy Runs for Congress: The Boston-bred scion of a former ambassador is a fighting-Irish conservative,” Look headlined an article in its June 11, 1946, issue. “When young, wealthy and conservative John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced for Congress, many people wondered why,” the story began. “Hardly a liberal even by his own standards, Kennedy is mainly concerned by what appears to him as the coming struggle between collectivism and capitalism. In speech after speech he charges his audience ‘to battle for the old ideas with the same enthusiasm that people have for new ideas.’”
   The Chicago Tribune reported Kennedy’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1952 by describing him as a “fighting conservative.”6 In a June 1953 Saturday Evening Post article, Kennedy said, “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all,” adding, speaking of liberals, “I’m not comfortable with those people.”
   On December 7, 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked in a television interview what she would do if she had to choose between a “conservative Democrat like Kennedy and a liberal Republican [like] Rockefeller.” She said she would do all she possibly could to make sure the Democrats did not nominate a candidate like Kennedy.7
   On the campaign trail in the 1960 election, Kennedy spoke about economics: “We should seek a balanced budget over the course of the business cycle with surpluses during good times more than offsetting the deficits which may be incurred during slumps. I submit that this is not a radical fiscal policy. It is a conservative policy.”8 Again, this wasn’t just campaign rhetoric — Kennedy kept his distance from liberalism right up until his assassination.
   “Why are some ‘liberals’ cool to the Kennedy Administration?” Newsweek asked in April 1962. The article went on to explain: “the liberal credentials of young Senator Kennedy never were impeccable . . . He never was really one of the visceral liberals . . . many liberal thinkers never felt close to him.”
   Even after Kennedy’s death, the “conservative” label was used to describe the late president and his policies by some of those who knew him best. One campaign staffer and congressional aide, William Sutton, described Kennedy’s political stance in the 1946 campaign as “almost ultraconservative.”9 “He was more conservative than anything else,” said a Navy friend of Kennedy’s, James Reed, who went on to serve as JFK’s assistant Treasury secretary and who had talked for “many hours” with the young Kennedy about fiscal and economic matters.10 Another of Kennedy’s friends, the Washington columnist Joseph Alsop, recalled in a 1964 interview, “The thing that’s very important to remember about the president was that he was not, in the most marked way, he was not a member of the modern, Democratic, liberal group. He had real — contempt I’m afraid is the right word — for the members of that group in the Senate, or most of them . . . What he disliked — and here again we’ve often talked about it — was the sort of posturing, attitude-striking, never getting anything done liberalism . . . This viewpoint was completely foreign to Kennedy, and he regarded it with genuine contempt. Genuine contempt. He really was — contemptuous is the right word for it. He was contemptuous of that attitude in American life.” Alsop went on to emphasize “the great success that the Kennedy administration had with an intelligent, active, but (in my opinion) conservative fiscal-economic policy.”11
   In January 1981, in the early days of the Reagan presidency a group of Kennedy administration veterans gathered at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston for a private conversation. One of the participants, Ted 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.”12 Sorensen made a similar point in a November 1983 Newsweek article, saying, “He never identified himself as a liberal . . . On fiscal matters he was more conservative than any president we’ve had since.”13 In a 1993 speech, Kennedy’s Treasury secretary, Douglas Dillon, described the president as “financially conservative.”14 Combine that position with hawkish anticommunism, and it is hard to find much overlap with liberals.
   Yet Kennedy’s conservatism is by no means a settled point today, nor was it at the time he lived. In January 1962, a columnist in the conservative magazine National Review wrote that Kennedy’s latest speech had given “further proof of his dedication to doctrinaire liberalism.”15 In 2011, the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, Peter Canellos, wrote of the Kennedy family, “For five decades, they advanced liberal causes.”16 The same year, at a conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy administration, the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick spoke of “the liberalism that he [Kennedy] did stand four-squarely behind.”17 In 2012, the Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley wrote that John Kennedy “seemed to many people a passionate and idealistic liberal,” though he allowed, too, that such a perception was perhaps “surprising.”18 Also in 2012, the biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro, could write almost in passing, as if no further explanation were needed, that Johnson’s assignment of holding the South for Kennedy in 1960 was a tough one because of “Kennedy’s liberalism.”19
   Categorizing Kennedy is made more complicated by the difficulty of defining exactly what was a “conservative” or a “liberal” at the time he lived, and by the shifting definitions of the terms over time, in both foreign and domestic policy. The Political Science Quarterly once published a twenty-five-page article trying to answer the question “What Was Liberalism in the 1950s?” The author finally punted: “Above all, we must resist the temptation to reduce 1950s liberalism” to “a simple idea.”20 If it is a frustrating point, it is nonetheless a fair one, and so too for the 1960s, when liberalism existed not only in tension with conservatism but also in contrast to radicalism. Yet this book is not primarily about political theory but about the policies, principles, and legacy of a person, John F. Kennedy, whose devotion to the traditional American values he spoke of on July 4, 1946, was sufficiently strong that it was said, “If you talk with a thousand people evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, you find that five hundred conservatives think that Jack is a conservative.”21
   If, after Kennedy’s death, there has been confusion about the reality of his politics and principles, it is certainly not the only aspect of his life on which, in spite of all the words written and spoken about it — maybe because of all the words written and spoken about it — there are widely divergent views.
   Take subjects as seemingly simple and straightforward as how Kennedy dressed, or what he drank. The biographer Robert Dallek describes Kennedy in “khaki pants and a rumpled seersucker jacket with a shirttail dangling below his coat,” and quotes a secretary as saying, “He wore the most godawful suits . . . Horrible looking, hanging from his frame.”22 By contrast, the journalist Ben Bradlee remembers his friend Jack Kennedy as “immaculately dressed” in “well-tailored suits” and “custom-made shoes and shirts,” and fastidious to the point of castigating Bradlee for the fashion foul of wearing dark brown shoes with a blue suit.23
   Kennedy “did not drink,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Garry Wills writes. “During long nights in the Solomon Islands, where there was little to do but drink, Kennedy gave away his liquor coupons.”24 By contrast, Sorensen writes of Kennedy, “When relaxing, he enjoyed a daiquiri, a scotch and water or a vodka and tomato juice before dinner and a brandy stinger afterward.”25 Kennedy “never had brandy in his life,” insisted Jacqueline Kennedy.26
   Some of these differences may be explained by Kennedy’s behavior changing over time. But there is a deeper issue, too. Kennedy himself once said that “what makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting” is “the struggle to answer that single question: ‘What’s he like?’”27 He grappled with this in his own historical writing: the concluding chapter of his book Profiles in Courage begins with the observation, “However detailed may have been our study of his life, each man remains something of an enigma . . . shadowed by a veil which cannot be torn away . . . Something always seems to elude us.”28
   The difficulty of coming up with a perfectly clear picture of Kennedy, though, is no reason not to try. It is a matter of more than merely historical curiosity. Kennedy consistently ranks near the top of public polls asking about the greatness of past presidents. His popularity suggests that the American people think of his record as a model worth emulating. Simply to ape Kennedy would be impossible, of course. Some of the issues have changed. The Soviet Union is gone, tax rates now are lower than when Kennedy wanted to cut them, and the state universities of the South have been racially integrated. But if the contours of the foreign policy, tax, and education fights have shifted, Kennedy’s course in them may nonetheless inform our choices today, as it has, we shall see, since his death. And other issues of Kennedy’s time are still with us, including economic growth, government spending, inflation, and, as he put it, “Christian morality,” the “cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals,” and “the right of the individual against the State.”
   Understanding Kennedy as a political conservative may make liberals uncomfortable, by crowning conservatism with the halo of Camelot. And it could make conservatives uncomfortable, too — many of them have long viscerally despised the entire Kennedy family, especially John F. Kennedy’s younger brother Ted.
   But the chance of upsetting some preconceived notions is no reason to stop. Instead, it is reason to forge ahead, to try to understand both the twenty-nine-year-old Navy veteran speaking at Faneuil Hall and the president he became. The task is simple: beneath the labels, before the spin, who was John Kennedy at root? As he himself would say, “Let us begin.”

Meet the Author

IRA STOLL is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com, and the author of Samuel Adams: A Life. From 2002 to 2008 he was vice president and managing editor of The New York Sun. Previously, he served as Washington correspondent and managing editor of The Forward, as North American editor of the Jerusalem Post, and as president of the Harvard Crimson.

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JFK, Conservative 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ira Stoll offers up some decent insights about the current Republican party. Contrary to what both parties believe, Stoll argued that modern conservatism derived its platform from President Kennedy. Shows strong correlation between the attitude and beliefs of President Kennedy's and President Reagan's terms.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Theory and spectulation and now dated