“Not a Liberal”
I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all.
—JOHN F. KENNEDY, 1953
The photographs of kennedy after the July 4, 1946, speech caution of the hazards of drawing too much by way of conclusions from a single talk. His mother, Rose Kennedy, in pearls and a floral print dress, clings to his left arm. His grandmother, Mary Fitzgerald, clings to his right arm. His speech is rolled up in his hand like a baton. His grandfather, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a former congressman and mayor of Boston who had been the principal speaker on the same platform exactly fifty years earlier, looks dapper in a bow tie. As for Kennedy himself, the broad white smile is unmistakable, but the skinny young man in a jacket and tie, holding a speech and surrounded by proud and doting elderly relatives, looks less like a fully formed professional politician than like a high school valedictorian on graduation day.
So if, to contemporary ears, the language of “Christian morality” and “the right of the individual against the State” and the attack on the “cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals” seems off-key for a president who has become an icon of liberalism, there is no shortage of possible explanations.
Perhaps it was the immature speech of a young man who changed his views as he got older.
Perhaps the young politician was being led astray by a speechwriter or staffer with strong views of his own. This, though, is unlikely. Kennedy’s White House spokesman, Pierre Salinger, recalled, “Actually, speeches were not written for the president but with him. He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. The role of the speech writer was to organize JFK’s thoughts into a rough draft, on which he himself would put the final touches. His revisions would often change it dramatically.”1 Kennedy’s secretary in the Senate and in the White House, Evelyn Lincoln, remembered, “He usually dictated a rough draft of his speeches.”2 Though Salinger and Lincoln joined Kennedy’s staff some years after 1946, editing marks on drafts of his speeches from this earlier period show a Kennedy who was more than capable of editing either speechwriters’ or his own drafts.
Kennedy’s secretary from 1947 to 1952, Mary Davis, in an oral history interview that at times is quite negative about Kennedy (“a spoiled young man”), recalls:
When he wanted to write a speech he did it, most of it. I would say 99% of that was done by JFK himself. I can remember first time he ever called me in — I even forget what the speech was going to be on, but it was going to be a major speech, one of his first major speeches. And I thought, “Oh, oh, this young, green congressman. What’s he going to do?” No preparation. He called me in and he says, “I think we’d better get to work on the speech.” And I said “Okay, fine.” And I thought he was going to stumble around, and he’ll er, ah, um.
I was never so startled in my life. He sat back in his chair, and it just flowed right out.3
Salinger and Lincoln and other Kennedy aides from the presidential years may have had an interest in inflating the late president’s reputation so as to enhance, by association, their own, but here their testimony seems to match that of Davis, who quit working for Kennedy in a dispute over her salary.
Perhaps Kennedy’s July 4, 1946, speech was a case of political pandering aimed at the electorate. This, though, is also unlikely. Less than a month before, Kennedy had won the Democratic primary for the Eleventh Congressional District in Massachusetts. It was a reliably Democratic district, and if the candidate was trying to appeal to independent or Republican crossover voters, a speech on a holiday weekend, months before the November election, would have been an odd vehicle.4
Perhaps Kennedy’s words were just rhetoric from a hypocritical politician who, once in office, would, in his public actions and private behavior, disregard his own speech. Maybe the stress on religion was a convenient Cold War shorthand for anticommunism, a way of drawing a contrast between the United States and the atheistic Soviet Union, or a way for an ambitious Catholic to reassure and win the trust of Protestant voters.
Or perhaps, just perhaps — and here is the most dramatic and intriguing possibility of them all — Kennedy actually, deeply, believed what he said, and would go on to serve as a congressman and senator and president of the United States according to those principles. He would take a hard line against communism in China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, and even in America’s own labor unions, weathering protests and criticisms from academia, European intellectuals, and left-wing journalists. He would be supported personally in this struggle by his own strong religious faith, and he would often refer publicly to God and to America’s religious history in his most powerful and important speeches. On the home front, he cut taxes. He restrained government spending. His presidency was markedly different from that of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Another aide to Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., reports that one night Kennedy remarked to him, “Liberalism and conservatism are categories of the thirties, and they don’t apply any more.”5 But of course they did, and they still do. The liberalism and conservatism of our two chief political parties have shifted over time, and it is hard for us to remember liberal Republicans or truly conservative Democrats. Yet Kennedy’s tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his military buildup, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom all make him, by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.
This book attempts to recover a basic truth about John Kennedy that in the years since he died has been forgotten — partly because of the work of liberal historians, partly as a result of shifts in American partisanship. Yet John Kennedy’s conservatism was hardly a secret during his lifetime. “A Kennedy Runs for Congress: The Boston-bred scion of a former ambassador is a fighting-Irish conservative,” Look headlined an article in its June 11, 1946, issue. “When young, wealthy and conservative John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced for Congress, many people wondered why,” the story began. “Hardly a liberal even by his own standards, Kennedy is mainly concerned by what appears to him as the coming struggle between collectivism and capitalism. In speech after speech he charges his audience ‘to battle for the old ideas with the same enthusiasm that people have for new ideas.’”
The Chicago Tribune reported Kennedy’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1952 by describing him as a “fighting conservative.”6 In a June 1953 Saturday Evening Post article, Kennedy said, “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all,” adding, speaking ...