JFK: A Liberal Hero or a Conservative One?

JFK: A Liberal Hero or a Conservative One?

By Carl M. Cannon - December 1, 2013

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral has come and gone, and to Americans of a certain age -- that is, those old enough to remember -- these sad events finally and mercifully belong to another time.

Vivid images of that tragedy remain, including the brave salute to his father’s coffin by the president’s son John, who turned 3 the day of the funeral. Questions do remain, unanswered and unanswerable. Did Oswald act alone? Would Kennedy have won re-election? Would U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia still have escalated?

This year, another kind of debate has been joined. Which side can most accurately claim John F. Kennedy’s legacy -- liberals or conservatives? It’s a question for the ages. Or, maybe the angels.

When Abraham Lincoln took his last breath at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, in a Washington boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stifled a sob and delivered an impromptu one-sentence eulogy: “Now he belongs to the angels.”

That is what stenographer James Tanner heard anyway. Twenty-one years old at the time, he’d been a Union Army corporal until the Second Battle of Bull Run, where he lost both legs. Young Tanner was pressed into service the night Lincoln was shot because he knew shorthand.

Twenty-five years later, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, the president’s two secretaries, wrote their biography of Lincoln. Like Tanner, Hay was in the room when Lincoln died. But in his telling, Stanton’s brief benediction was morphed into something more secular: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

What had changed? The answer may be nothing more significant than two earnest young men simply hearing Stanton differently. Yet, by 1890, much had changed. For one thing, Lincoln’s appeal was more universal.

In the Northern states, his death precipitated an outpouring of grief almost alien to a free people. He was shot on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, in packed churches from California to Maine, pastors and priests did not shy from invoking their faith’s most profound comparison. It was an easy case to make -- at least outside the South.

“The parallels with Christ on the cross could not escape anybody,” Civil War historian James M. McPherson noted. “Lincoln … had taken on the burdens of the whole nation on his own shoulders, and for that he was crucified. Here is a man, like Jesus, who was killed to save the rest of us.”

On April 21, a special train departed Washington, D.C., on a roundabout, 1,700-mile journey back to Springfield, Ill. Millions of Americans lined the route, mourning the president and his son Willie, whose small coffin accompanied the president’s (to be reinterred), mourning for the First Family, for their own sons lost in the war, for themselves.

The reaction was not the same everywhere. Those in rebellion were not invited to participate in Northerners’ grief, and did not share it. Most Southerners would eventually come to that place, however, and were making that journey when Hay and Nicolay wrote about Lincoln in 1890.

Today, to Americans everywhere, Lincoln certainly belongs to the ages. So does George Washington. Joining them in this rarefied company are a few other presidents so revered for their accomplishments or personas that they transcend partisanship -- even if they couldn’t do that in life.

This process happens rarely, and like all miracles, somewhat mysteriously. How did Harry Truman, of all people, become the patron saint of beleaguered presidents? A relentlessly partisan fellow in the White House, he left office with historically low approval ratings and blamed by his fellow Democrats for the 1952 Republican sweep that put Dwight Eisenhower in the Oval Office and Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress.

Yet Truman’s memory has been venerated not just by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but by George W. Bush -- and even Ronald Reagan, who actually campaigned for Truman in 1948, the last time Reagan stumped for a Democrat.

Will Reagan, the bane of liberals’ existence while he occupied the White House, ever be given similar treatment? Actually, it’s happening already. As for Kennedy, his mystique is so widespread that liberals and conservatives each try to claim him -- the first step toward political canonization.

Writing in the Daily Beast, conservative writer Ira Stoll points out that Jack Kennedy was a pro-life tax cutter who challenged unions and relished his role as the West’s leader in the Cold War. He spoke about the “cancer of labor racketeering,” called abortion “repugnant,” and was slow to move on civil rights.

JFK’s liberal reputation, Stoll asserts, was mostly a posthumous fiction concocted by in-house liberal Harvard academics who pushed JFK to sound more liberal while he was president and helped Jackie Kennedy concoct the Camelot myth after he was gone. In Stoll’s telling, Theodore Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Teddy White are the main culprits.

Not surprisingly, liberal historian David Greenberg begs to differ.

Writing in the New Republic, he scoffs at all this. “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,” Greenberg says.

He adds that during the 1960 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to make the term “liberal” a pejorative, Kennedy embraced it.

“But the warm feelings Americans have toward Kennedy may be something more than nostalgia for a glamorous presidency cut short,” he writes. “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.”

In other words, the answer to whether John F. Kennedy was a liberal or a conservative is … yes.

“It is possible to be a classical liberal and an American conservative at the same time. I would argue they are one in the same,” says Craig Shirley, a conservative writer and Reagan biographer. “At some point, both philosophies embrace the expansion of freedom as the most worthy and important goal of government.”

Abraham Lincoln, who politely discarded Edwin Stanton’s talking points for his first inaugural address, instead producing a classic speech in which he urged Americans to embrace “the better angels of our nature,” would have approved. Like Lincoln, Kennedy now belongs to the ages. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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