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.