Tuesday, December 04, 2007

JFK and Right-Wing Revisionism

Thanksgiving Day fell on November 22 this year, so there were few news articles about the forty-fourth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. One exception was a piece by National Review editor Rich Lowry, which appears to have been written back in August, but showed up in newspapers on November 22.

While the National Review is a very conservative journal, it is a thinking person’s conservatism, and Lowry’s piece provokes a lot of thought. It’s right-wing revisionism, of course and actually a review of Jim Piereson’s book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. Piereson argues that the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath marked the end of the optimistic and patriotic liberalism of the postwar years and the beginning of a new cynicism on the left:

Until this point, 20th-century liberalism had tended to see history as a steady march of progress. Now, the march had been interrupted by the country’s own pathologies. “Kennedy was mourned in a spirit of frustrated possibility and dashed hopes,” Piereson argues, and that sense of loss came to define the new liberalism.

American history no longer appeared to be a benign process, but a twisted story of rapine and oppression. “With such a bill of indictment,” Piereson writes, “the new liberals now held that Americans had no good reason to feel pride in their country’s past or optimism about its future.”

I haven’t read Piereson’s book, so what follows is based on Lowry’s article. My own take is that the Kennedy assassination was not the impetus for turning liberals into pessimists and progressive historians into revisionists, but the Vietnam War and the events of 1968: what journalist Jules Witcover called “the year the dream died.”

Lowry portrays Kennedy as a conservative, a sort of George W. Bush with charisma: “From a distance of nearly 50 years, the liberalism of 1960 is hardly recognizable. It was comfortable with the use of American power abroad, unabashedly patriotic, and forward-looking.” He goes on to say that Kennedy was “friends with Joe McCarthy… vigorously anti-communist, a tax-cutter and a cautious supporter of civil rights.”

And he’s right--or half-right. JFK had been a friend of McCarthy, but distanced himself from the Wisconsin senator after McCarthy had accused the Army of Communist leanings. His tax cut was in line with Keynesian economics; it was nothing like Bush’s massive tax cuts for the very wealthy. While he was cautious about supporting the civil rights movement, he embraced it wholeheartedly in 1963. As for using American power abroad, Kennedy had sense enough not to use American troops to invade Cuba. And if his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is right, Kennedy was planning a gradual withdrawal of the American military advisers from Vietnam.

Liberals are and were patriotic. It's more of a perception problem. In the early 1960s, civil rights workers wore American flag lapel pins. Segregationists wore pins with the Confederate battle flag. It was only later, in protests against the Vietnam war, that some radicals not only abandoned the national symbol, but desecrated it. Theirs was a stupid and foolish action, which hardened the resolve of those supporting the war. (Those of us who oppose the Iraq war have, for the most part, embraced the U.S. flag. A popular button in 2003 read, “Peace is Patriotic.”) When radicals desecrated the flag, or used the German spelling “Amerika” (to identify our nation as Nazi), liberals bore the onus of these acts (probably because we argued, on very American First Amendment grounds, that they had the right to do so). But we foolishly allowed the right wing to claim the flag as its own in the late 1960s--not during the civil rights era of 1964-65.

For Richard Goodwin, who had been a Kennedy aide, the Sixties ended with Robert Kennedy's assassination. His memoir, Remembering America : A Voice From the Sixties, is a fascinating book, which takes us from the quiz show scandals of the Fifties to 1968. Witcover makes the same point in The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America .

Lowry's point about American history deserves its own post. I plan to deal with trends in history in a more personal article about my two-year stint as a graduate student in history.]

For a nation of “rugged individualists,” we Americans look to leaders as much as anyone else. JFK captured our hearts and imagination and made us proud of our country. We liberals have not elected such a leader since. Robert Kennedy had the potential to unite America, but he too was cut down by an assassin. Lowry concludes by writing:

One day a Democratic politician will emerge who is compelling enough to vanquish the foul spirit of JFK’s assassination from the left. [One of Lowry’s points is that Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist--to reinforce his idea that Kennedy wasn’t a liberal. For me, the motives of this disturbed young man, which we‘ll never know, are not relevant to a discussion of Kennedy‘s politics.] Until that happens, JFK has to be remembered, in Piereson’s words, as “the last articulate spokesman for the now lost world of American liberalism.”

With, "the audacity of hope," I believe Barack Obama may be that Democratic politician.

12 comments:

Julie said...

Holystone - The Philadelphia Catechism...

This post on JFK is a learning curve for a Brit; remember his death.

Charles Gramlich said...

I barely remember JFK, although I saw him once at the FOrt Smith Airport. I remember when his brother was killed though, and that it was the first time I saw my father cry.

steve said...

Julie--When I was very yound and in Britain, people told me how much they admired Kennedy. One rather down-and-out man I ran into on the Embankment (and who had asked me for money) remembered so well that JFK promised to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." I didn't have the heart to tell him that every preseident, including Nixon, swore to that oath.

Charles--I never saw JFK, but I did see Robert in 1966. John Culver, a congressman and later senator from Iowa, had been Teddy's roommate at Harvard, so members of the Kennedy clan would often show up to campaign for him. RFK's speech in Indianapolis after King's assassination is one of the most moving speeches I ever heard. Your story about your father crying at his death reaffirms my belief that he could have healed the nation.

Lisa said...

I realize it's a ridiculous oversimplification, but I've learned to come to terms with my own disenchantment with the actions of the Bush administration by separating America and Americans from this particular administration. There was a time when I went out of my way not to tell people that I'm a veteran, because I was ashamed of my government's actions and I feared people would assume that my participation in the military implied support for the military actions our country has been involved in. I hope and I believe that it's possible for us to turn around the decades of apathy and become a caring society again, with the right leadership to inspire us. I am acutely aware that when I hear people from other nations speak about their own cultures and societies, they use the word "we". In our country, that no longer seems to be the case. I'm not a historian, by any means so I'm curious to know whether you think it's possible for us to once again become the compassionate country that I think we once were.

Julie said...

I suspect JFK was as much absorbed into our national consciousness in his time - and since - as other subsequent icons have been. Thanks for the clip on the Cutty Sark; may well follow that up.

steve said...

Lisa--I tend toward pessismism, and back in October 2005, my post, "The Universal Soldier and the Twilight of Democracy," I concluded:

"I’m glad we’re not blaming common soldiers for Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. But we should also remember that one reason we don’t blame them is because we believe that they, like ourselves, are powerless in the face of governments and corporations."

I'm more hopeful today. Part of it was the 2006 election, in which American voters came out in such numbers that vote suppression didn't work.

And I was very much inspired by Bill Clinton's address at my daughter Sarah's graduation from Knox College last May, though he didn't always show the same compassionate attitude as president. Obama spoke at Knox two years before, and Sarah was impressed with him.

America's compassion was most evident during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman (the Marshall Plan and desegregating the military), and John Kennedy. If it hadn't been for Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson might have been one of America's greatest president for his passage of the civil rights bills in 1965 and his War on Poverty.

I'm very much impressed with Obama, but I could support Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, and just about anyone else on the Democratic side. I think Obama has the potential to rekindle the fundamental decency in Americans. I thought John Kerry had that potential, too, and he came close to winning--just not close enough.

I think your tactic of separating America and Americans from the Bush Administration is a healthy one. I've done much the same thing. And in my job, I've tried to see myself as working for Amtrak's passengers, rather than for management regimes that were often incompetent.

Julie-It's true that JFK has become an icon, as, has Ronald Reagan, of whom I'm no fan. What's really scary is that the Russian leadership seems to be rehabilitating Stalin. Reagan's policies may have made thousands homeless, but at least he didn't have them shot.

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, funny that you would wrap around to the Putin nightmare. I can't believe how he's morphed from someone the world trusted to an agent of despair, but from what I've heard those closest to him have always been aware of that side of him, and of his true purpose.

I'm hoping beyond hope that Obama succeeds in his mission to unite our country but fear he's still too hesitant to simply tell it like it is in debates and other public forums. His answers in the debate the other night were called "increasingly vague" as the event wore on; ambiguity is not what we need in our next leader. I think we've all learned to be skeptical of anything that's not absolutely transparent.

Julie said...

Steve, I don't know if this will be of any interest to you or not, but I came across an A.Lincoln blog by the
Associate Prof. of History at the Anderson University of Indiana while looking through profiles.

http://alincolnblog.blogspot.com/

if you want to check it out.

steve said...

Karen--In this political atmosphere, sometimes vagueness is the best policy. And Obama has been less vague than most. (I missed the NPR debate, though). I'm afraid everybody remembers 1984 when Walter Mondale promised to raise taxes. Reagan, of course, promised that he wouldn't, and the onetime host of Death Valley Days won a second term by a landslide. And of course he did raise taxes, calling it "revenue enhancements."

Julie--Thanks for the Lincoln blog link. I recently did some research on Lincoln's "Lost Speech" (August 2007 Archive).

Julie said...

Steve - I followed your comment on Jessica's blog and have cut out my reference to your blog there as a precaution; hope you haven't had any problems.

steve said...

Julie--I had no problem with your link--I thought there might be a comment in there that I didn't know about. I should have made that clear. It was almost a joke. And I doubt whether any readers of her blog would spam me--they might call me to task for my liberal politics and religion, but I can handle that.

Julie said...

Thanks, Steve -

As I didn't pick up what was going on, I decided to clip it out just in case. No harm done.