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.’”
In 1960, the United States was gripped by a quest for “national purpose,” a yearning to find a meaningful goal for America’s energies. This desire had several sources. The cold war was enervating. Material comfort gave rise to an existential uncertainty about what our riches were supposed to produce, a malaise captured in books such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and David Riesman’s Abundance for What? Kennedy’s pledge to “get America moving again” should be understood as a part of this collective soul-searching. After the hands-off economic management of President Eisenhower’s free-marketeers, Kennedy promised an aggressive effort to spur growth and create jobs. After Eisenhower’s neglect of mounting urban problems, Kennedy promised a federal commitment to education and housing. After Sputnik and the U-2 affair, Kennedy promised a vigorous effort to win hearts and minds around the world.
As an activist, Kennedy called on Americans to trust government to address the nation’s problems; as a pragmatist, he bade them to believe that dedicated public servants could again muster, as they had during the New Deal, the requisite know-how. In word and in deed, JFK put the weight of his presidency behind a liberal program. He backed a demand-side—not supply-side—tax cut designed to put money in people’s hands to stimulate short-term economic activity. The War on Poverty (an idea he had rolled out during the campaign) sought to alleviate penury, especially among the elderly, by pushing for Medicare and expanded Social Security benefits. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women endorsed workplace equality, child care facilities for working women, paid maternity leave, better Social Security benefits for widows, and equal pay for comparable work. Federal employees got collective bargaining.
Even on civil rights, where Kennedy often gave into his fear of alienating the Southern bloc, he ultimately put the power of the federal government behind racial equality. He used federal troops to ensure the enrollment of black students at the universities of Mississippi and Alabama; his administration implemented the first “affirmative action” program for government employees and contractors. Some movement leaders seethed with frustration over his slow pace. But when the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick compiled post-assassination condolence letters to Jackie Kennedy for a 2010 book, she found affecting notes from African Americans who considered Kennedy, as one correspondent wrote, “a beacon—a light in the darkness who would indeed be a second Emancipator.” His picture graced walls and mantelpieces.
In foreign policy, too, Kennedy’s liberalism has been underappreciated. We hear nowadays that he ran to the right of Richard Nixon on national security in 1960—a claim supported chiefly by his invocation of the so-called missile gap. But that stance no more made Kennedy a hawk in 1960 than Barack Obama’s 2008 pledge to escalate in Afghanistan placed him to the right of John McCain. Overall, in 1960, it was Kennedy who expressed skepticism about the extension of military forces around the globe. He was, to be sure, a staunch anti-communist, and not averse to using hard power. But it was Nixon, not Kennedy, who was ready to go to war to defend Quemoy and Matsu, the tiny islands off China’s shore, while Kennedy questioned his rival’s ill-considered stance.
JFK’s 1961 inaugural address, too, is typically misread as saber-rattling. But his famous call to steel the nation for the cold war conflict was a prologue to the exposition of a more hopeful, conciliatory policy. In that speech, Kennedy endorsed the United Nations as “our last best hope,” warned against the stockpiling of nukes, urged arms-control negotiations, and held out the prospect of collaboration in science, medicine, and commerce. Press accounts treated it as a summons to work toward peace.
In office, Kennedy also preferred diplomacy to military intervention. His wariness of using force led him to deny the CIA-supported Cuban rebels the sufficient air cover they needed at the Bay of Pigs; 18 months later, it counseled him to buck his military chiefs and negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet missiles. He rejected initial calls to get involved in Laos, and his frequently voiced doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. military support for South Vietnam make it at least plausible to surmise that, had he lived, Kennedy wouldn’t have escalated as Johnson did (a speculative matter either way). Following the Cuban missile crisis, moreover, Kennedy redoubled efforts to pull back from the brink. He installed the “hot line” to Moscow and concluded a historic nuclear test-ban treaty. If by “cold warrior” we mean someone cognizant of the stakes of the superpower rivalry, JFK deserves the label. But his presidency was marked at least as much by efforts to defuse tensions as it was by the adventurism for which he has since become known.
Under Kennedy, popular support for government was near its peak. More than 70 percent of Americans said they trusted Washington most or all of the time. As the Vietnam war and the kulturkampf of the 1960s dragged on, that figure declined. Today, after decades of anti-government rhetoric and gridlock, debt and wage stagnation, it stands at about 20 percent. Promises of an activist government are met with cynicism, hostility, and questions about the price tag. The climate is inhospitable to those who would rally the public to higher purposes.
Layers of revisionism and politicized misreadings of Kennedy have come to obscure his true beliefs.
JFK is a reminder that this wasn’t always so. Retrospectives on him inevitably include the witty press conferences, the white-tie White House dinners with the likes of Pablo Casals, the photos of John Jr. playing under the Oval Office desk. But the warm feelings Americans have toward Kennedy may be something more than nostalgia for a glamorous presidency cut short. They reflect a wistfulness for the sense of common purpose and faith in a collective project that a proudly liberal president helped the nation achieve.
David Greenberg, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.