By Ira Stoll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 274 pages
Who would have thought it could have happened?
The scene: A Democrat in the White House is a supply-side tax-cutter (before Ronald Reagan, no less). Moreover, he goes out of his way to condemn communism, and not just the foreign left-wing dictators (That was easy then. Today's leftists brag about vacations in the Castros' Cuba.) Beyond that, this president condemned the infiltrators on our own soil. (Today, it would be called a "witch hunt.")
America, meet the real John F. Kennedy, as viewed by Ira Stoll, revisionist fact-checker. In "JFK, Conservative," this author and journalist acknowledges the liberal "reforms" the 35th president promised the nation, including education and medical care for the elderly (pre-Medicare, and surely predating today's wobbling Obamacare).
However, wearing his historian's hat, Mr. Stoll did not sit down to write about what President Kennedy promised. Politicians make lofty promises all the time. Lincoln, for one, made public pronouncements in his time that would amaze many of today's idolaters of the Civil War president's legacy.
No, this author's focus is on what Kennedy actually did or tried to do while in the White House. Whether the president would have changed course had his life not been cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald's bullet is unknown. That question mark has encouraged many partisans on the left to place JFK post-mortem in their camp. However, the author cites facts that consistently get in the way of the image.
For one thing, Kennedy's fierce anti-communism as revealed in "JFK, Conservative" belies the image touted by today's liberals who claim his mantle. The president, for example, had warned civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. that two of his associates were communists. "You've got to get rid of them," he warned.
Supposedly, the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race in 1960 was the ultimate ideological showdown, with Nixon the traditional conservative versus Kennedy the liberal. Clear cut, right? Au contraire.
The pattern, Mr. Stoll points out, "in all four debates was that Nixon sounded like a tax-and-spend peacenik, and Kennedy sounded like a hard-liner against both federal spending and communism."
Religion crept into the campaign, not because Kennedy would be the first Catholic president of the United States (far less contentious than in Al Smith's time 32 years earlier), but because the candidate repeatedly linked the role of religion to the founding of America.
Note this from the Democratic candidate: "A society which seeks to make the worship of the state the ultimate objective of life cannot permit a higher loyalty, a faith in God, a belief in a religion that elevates the individual and acknowledges his true value ." Those who utter such sentiments in the current era are likely derided as "extremists" of the "religious right."
On foreign-policy concerns, Rep. (and then Sen.) Kennedy faulted President Truman and his State Department "and their academic advisers for the loss of much of mainland China to the communists." He went on to blame such targets of the congressional anti-communist investigators as Harvard's John K. Fairbank and Johns Hopkins' Owen Lattimore.
Moreover, Kennedy's settled aversion to communists was on display into his short presidency, including the failed Bay of Pigs operation, an attempt to rid communism from its perch in Cuba 90 miles from U.S. shores, and later, of course, his successful resistance to Soviet missiles delivered to Castro's island prison state and pointed toward the United States.
Based on the above, it would be easy to describe JFK not as a "conservative" as Mr. Stoll claims, but as an anti-communist liberal. However, wait. He was a tax-cutter, too.
Whereas in the debates, as Nixon contemplated having to raise taxes, Kennedy repeatedly said the very idea of implementing tax hikes was the exact opposite of generating "growth."
When he became president, he followed through. His program aimed at steep cuts in personal- and income-tax rates, as well as corporate and capital-gains tax rates.
Kennedy wanted to lower them all, writes Mr. Stoll. He made the same argument Reagan would make in 1980, but (ironically) with precisely the opposite partisan reaction: Many Republicans (and some Democrats) thought Kennedy's plan was reckless, but centrist Democrats and a few farsighted Republicans agreed with their president.
The tax cuts' journey toward enactment was finally authorized by Kennedy following a debate within his administration. When the measure became law after the assassination, the nation embarked on a path toward a robust economy lasting for years.
Some things about his White House tenure did not please conservatives. They are for another day. Overall, Kennedy comes off as far more conservative than liberal.
Why then does the myth of JFK the "liberal" persist? The author cites the media and biased historians, as well as friends of the president who are partial to "history" as they wish it had been.
Wes Vernon is a writer and broadcast journalist whose career ended with 25 years at CBS Radio. His column appears at RenewAmerica.com.