Media Buzz

The Media War Over JFK: Was the iconic president a liberal?

President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination.

President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination.  (reuters)

The outpouring, 50 years later, has been nothing short of remarkable.

The media are awash in Jack Kennedy tributes, specials, documentaries, books and essays, conjuring up how he lived and how he died. There is an enduring fascination with Camelot, the myth enshrined after his death, and with the myriad theories and counter-theories about Lee Harvey Oswald and that awful day in Dallas.

But a partisan battle has also erupted over this question: Was Kennedy really and truly a liberal?

Why, one might ask, does this question still have resonance? Is it just a way to transpose the politics of 1963 to our 21st-century era of constant political warfare?

Sure, but it goes deeper than that. Although Kennedy’s accomplishments were meager in his thousand days, he retains a powerful hold on our imagination. This is in part because he was cut down in his prime, creating a sense of a dream unfulfilled. And though he was a lifelong Democrat, each side wants to claim his legacy.

Baby boomers, who are forever reliving the sixties, bear part of the blame. But the Kennedy memory obviously has a hold on many who were born well after he died, some of whom want to convert his magic to their cause.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby makes the case for the right:

“As Democrats maneuvering for the 2016 presidential race, there isn’t one who would think of disparaging John F. Kennedy’s stature as a Democratic Party hero. Yet it’s a pretty safe bet that none would dream of running on Kennedy’s approach to government or embrace his political beliefs.

“Today’s Democratic Party — the home of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore — wouldn’t give the time of day to a candidate like JFK.

“The 35th president was an ardent tax-cutter who championed across-the-board, top-to-bottom reductions in personal and corporate tax rates, slashed tariffs to promote free trade, and even spoke out against the ‘confiscatory’ property taxes being levied in too many cities. He was anything but a big-spending, welfare-state liberal. ‘I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort,’ Kennedy bluntly avowed during the 1960 campaign.”

That is also the theme of this National Review piece by James Pierson, examining Ira Stoll’s book “JFK, Conservative”:

“Now Ira Stoll comes along to make the startling case that JFK was not a liberal at all, but in reality a conservative who (had he lived) might have endorsed Ronald Reagan for president and today might be comfortably at home writing editorials for National Review. Most readers will be skeptical of this thesis and are likely to think that the author has taken revisionist history a bit too far. Yet Stoll…makes a strong case that conservatives should stake a claim to President Kennedy as one of their own…

“JFK appears more conservative to us today than he appeared to his contemporaries because liberalism moved so far to the left in the years after he was killed.”

That’s a telling point, reminding me that Kennedy’s foe Richard Nixon would be viewed as an outright liberal by today’s GOP.

But historian David Greenberg rejects the argument, making the opposite case in the New Republic:

“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.’

“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.”

Kennedy’s shortened tenure is such that both sides can cherry-pick his record. Had he lived, would he have battled his party’s Southern wing and pushed through an LBJ-like civil rights program? Would he have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam? We are, because of an assassin’s bullet, still debating these questions a half century later.

The Odds on Jeb

It looked for awhile like Jeb Bush might try to follow his brother and father into the White House. Then he made some comments about being out of step with the GOP. 

Now, says Politico, his name is emerging again:

“New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is getting all the attention as the flavor of the month for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But there is growing chatter in elite New York financial circles that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is giving more serious consideration to getting in the race, especially if it appears at any point that Christie is not drawing big national appeal beyond the northeast.

“Several top GOP sources on Wall Street and in Washington said this week that Bush has moved from almost certainly staying out of the 2016 race to a ‘30 percent chance’ of getting in. Several sources mentioned the precise 30 percent odds as up from closer to zero just a few months ago.”

These things are getting like weather forecasts, like a 30 percent chance of rain.

Reporter’s Ordeal

This first-person account by the Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss of how he was held captive by Venezuelan authorities for two days is pretty chilling:

“I was wearing a bulletproof vest, lying flat in the backseat of an unmarked armored car and being escorted by three heavily armed men when I started to worry.

“At that point I had been in the custody of Venezuela’s General Directorate of Military Counter Intelligence for 24 hours. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that a ‘commission’ was waiting for me.”

So glad he can now safely tell the tale.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.