The death of John F. Kennedy will be forever seared into America’s collective memory as a tragedy of immeasurable proportion. But a nation still unable to fully comprehend why it happened – 54 years later – has also struggled to come to grips with something even larger which expired that day: liberalism itself.
But how can we address this larger issue if we don’t even know – or accept – the reason JFK died?
In the fullness of time, the cause – and consequent lessons – of most tragedies can be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. Lincoln was murdered as revenge for the confederate defeat in the Civil War . Pearl Harbor was the result of Japanese determination to conquer Asia. 9/11 was the product of islamo-fascist efforts to take down its enemies in the west.
But a full 54 years after one of the most awful days in American history unfolded in Dallas, Texas, Americans are still unable to properly process the assassination of America’s youngest president. And there is a simple reason for that: we as a nation remain unconvinced of what the government has told us about it. If you can not buy what the establishment has tried for over five decades to sell us in various forms, how can you then ascribe blame and understand the historical forces that led to the gruesome murder of America’s 35th president in broad daylight amidst an adoring throng of onlookers?
The recent release of a final round of previously classified documents related to the assassination revealed little of consequence. Nevertheless, conspiracy theorists used the release as another opportunity to refresh their arguments that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone – or was just a patsy. They have re-litigated their various contentions that the hit was masterminded by one or more among the mob, CIA, FBI, Communists, anti-Communists, LBJ, the Secret Service, and the Dallas Police.
An Even Larger Death on 11/22/63
No single conspiracy theory has held sway over the others, though the JFK assassination remains arguably (perhaps inarguably) the most studied event in the history of modern civilization. Scores of scholars and amateurs actually altered the direction of their lives – dropped whatever they were doing – in an attempt to discover for themselves the truth of what led up to, and what actually happened, that fateful day.
But the death of liberalism which commenced that day was far slower and less obvious to the shocked onlookers at Dealey Plaza and around the globe. Unlike JFK, liberalism’s death was not immediate. It was not apparent for many months, even years after Kennedy was gunned down.
You will undoubtedly say that many a liberal has come and gone since 11/22/63, but the winsome brand of liberalism embodied by JFK – hopeful, forward-looking, inspirational, unabashedly pro-American and anti-Communist – began a rapid descent upon his death. It was ultimately supplanted by a leftist philosophy that reached its zenith during the Obama years but was repudiated on another unforgettable November day in 2016, and has now been reduced to little more than a boiling hatred for all who disagree with them.
It has been said that greatness is by circumstance thrust upon those whom history has deemed great. JFK came to office at a time of both great peril and great opportunity. As is their wont, historians disagree on his abbreviated legacy. But the Democratic presidents who followed have hardly left a trail of eminent distinction. LBJ was hopelessly enveloped by Vietnam, declared a war on poverty which has failed and retired a beaten man. Jimmy Carter was in way over his head. Bill Clinton was plagued by scandals and was strictly a pragmatist. Obama will likely be defined only by his race, by his philosophy of “leading from behind,” and by Obamacare – and we know where that is headed.
The Faded Echoes of JFK’s Liberalism
JFK possessed three critical traits that are now just distant memories on the American left – foreign policy realism, an economic philosophy that embraced the free market and lower taxes, and perhaps most importantly, a belief in American exceptionalism.
Kennedy actually campaigned in 1960 on a strong anti-Communist platform. While the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, it was certainly not because the president was insufficiently committed to taking down Fidel Castro, but because the young president was talked into the invasion of Cuba by advisers who failed to deliver what they promised. Refusing to be spooked by that failure, JFK went on to stare down Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a terrifying 13-day period when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy recognized the evil and looming tyranny of Castro. And his worst fears have been tragically realized now for over five decades of iron-fisted rule by the Castro brothers.
But the descent of liberal foreign policy realism was fully realized just over a decade later when President Jimmy Carter actively minimized the threat of Soviet Communism, after which we witnessed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the most massive buildup of Soviet forces around the globe in the 70-year history of that totalitarian state. Carter expressed shock.
While precious few liberal foreign policy realists such as Hubert Humphrey remained after JFK’s death, one is hard-pressed to find any who also believed in lower taxes.
One of the most quoted expressions regarding the efficacy of tax cuts is a rising tide lifts all boats. Did you know it was not Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, but JFK who popularized that saying, and used it repeatedly? Who was the last “liberal” you can recall not only favoring but investing substantial political capital in lowering taxes? Tough question. But one of Kennedy’s most significant domestic initiatives – finally achieved three months after his death – was an across-the-board, top-to-bottom cut in personal and corporate income taxes. And JFK’s stewardship of an economy in deep recession at the time of his inauguration led to an employment boom and soaring stock prices just as he was headed out on his fateful journey to Texas. Less than three years after his death, economic growth had reached over six percent – six percent! – and unemployment had dropped below four percent.
JFK and American Exceptionalism
So, while history reveals virtually zero liberals in the last 50 years who were foreign policy realists and tax cutters, that number would dip below zero, if that was possible when it comes to a genuine belief in American exceptionalism. That concept, now championed by Donald Trump, is the bane of today’s left.
Kennedy’s inspired oratory, aided by arguably the greatest speechwriter in history, Ted Sorenson, included this memorable quote from his inaugural address that spoke to both his foreign and domestic ideals : “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”1 These days, leftists avoid the word liberty like the plague. But JFK’s belief in America as an exceptional nation was what inspired his commitment to landing a man on the moon, saying America will commit to doing this “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
His “new frontier” was a call to America’s better angels, animated by the goals later adopted by LBJ with his “great society” but without the same pronounced degree of government intervention. He was late to the game on civil rights but eventually exercised leadership when forced to by intransigent racist leaders (mostly of his own party) in the deep south. And of course, his establishment of the Peace Corps became the embodiment of the noblest American ideals which inspired thousands to interrupt their lives and head overseas to try and make the world a better place.
In sharp contrast to JFK’s initiatives based on his implicit belief in America as exceptional, Barack Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
In her first interview after her husband’s assassination, finally made public seven years ago, Jackie Kennedy may have best encapsulated her husband’s legacy by describing him as “an idealist without illusions.”
It is true that any martyred leader, especially one who inspired people as Kennedy did, will forever be viewed through the prism of what he might have accomplished, as with his murdered brother Robert F. Kennedy. The 35th president has become something of a Rorschach test, with people attaching to him the potential fulfillment of their own aspirations. But it is fair to say that the thousand days of Kennedy’s presidency provided sufficient evidence to support the assertion that he was a decidedly consequential president. And one who may have become a great president.
But one thing seems certain to those of us who mourn what the left and the Democratic party have become today: he was the last great liberal.