What Would JFK Do?

Philip Terzian takes on JFK hagiographer Ted Sorenson’s contribution to the longstanding effort to rewrite history and turn Jack Kennedy into a post-1960’s leftist:

…Sorensen has repeated, with emphasis, his simple, three-part formula for understanding modern American history:


His latest essay—’When Kennedy Met Nixon: The Real Story’ (Sept 26) about the 1960 presidential debates—follows Sorensen’s usual pattern of retelling events as he would like them to be remembered, and as such things go, it is one of his less offensive pronouncements. While maintaining his standard posture that John F. Kennedy was a man of uncommon intelligence, charm, grace, wisdom, and magnetism, he is more contemptuous of Richard Nixon this time than abusive. Indeed, all goes relatively well until the last two sentences:

“Though it seemed at the time to be a battle between two opposing worldviews, the truth is that the two candidates did not vastly differ in that first debate. And while Kennedy would probably find a home in today’s Democratic Party, it is unlikely that Nixon would receive a warm welcome among the Tea Party.”

Oh? The Richard Nixon of 1960 may or may not get a friendly reception from the Tea Party of 2010—however that is defined—but is Sorensen serious when he suggests that the John Kennedy of 1960 “would probably find a home” in the party of Eric Holder, DailyKos, Keith Olbermann, MoveOn.org, Barbara Boxer, and Alan Grayson?

Kennedy, who abstained from the Senate’s 1954 vote of censure against Joseph McCarthy, ran against Nixon on a mythical “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union, complained that the Eisenhower administration had “lost” Cuba to the communists and was inadequately defending Chiang Kai-shek’s Formosa against Red China. As president he was decidedly lukewarm in his support of the civil rights movement—much to the consternation of most activists—and not only sponsored a bigger tax cut than the Eisenhower White House ever contemplated, but retained J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI, sent thousands of military “advisers” into South Vietnam and Laos, furnished material support for a premeditated invasion of Cuba, and appointed Gen. Curtis LeMay as Air Force chief of staff.

What Ted Sorensen’s boss would have thought of gay marriage, cap-and-trade, racial quotas, Bill Ayers, and nationalizing General Motors, we can only speculate.

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  • Buddy  On April 11, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    I agree with the late Ted Sorensen that JFK would find solace with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party were he to somehow live today (he’d be really, really old). If you look at how he evolved away from his more reactionary father, from 1940, when he wrote “Why England Slept” and rejected his dad’s far right hatred of FDR, to his embracing of a nuclear test ban, blocking the hard right during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and support for the civil rights movement, it’s not difficult to see how he could have evolved further toward accepting gay marriage and other socially liberal issues of today. Remember: in 1963, conservatives were against Medicare (which President Kennedy championed), were for invading Cuba (which Kennedy resisted), and many conservatives thought Negroes were “niggers” as a black reporter found to her surprise when she tried to cover the 1964 Cow Palace convention in San Francisco. The Southern Dixiecrats who rejected LBJ’s civil rights legislation ran to the GOP in droves after their independent candidate, George Wallace, failed to garner enough votes. Nixon played on these southerners skillfully, and on tape said he didn’t like “niggers and jews” as you can plainly hear today. Kennedy would never have said these kinds of things! Even Barry Goldwater by the 1980’s had rejected the religious right, calling them “a bunch of bastards”. It’s quite easy to see JFK today being hated by the Fox News far right. Sorensen was more aware of Kennedy than you might think.

    • Ron  On April 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm

      Today’s Democratic Party isn’t JFK’s Democratic Party. For one, Kennedy was strongly anti-Communist where today’s Democrats tend to be sympathetic to folks like the Castros. According to Richard Reeves, no conservative, Kennedy was not very supportive of the civil rights movement, which he thought was propaganda material for the Communists. According to Reeves and others, Kennedy called in Harris Wolford during the Freedom Rides and told him to “tell your goddamned friends to get off those buses.” Also according to Reeves, Kennedy liked to tell racist jokes, both he and Bobby. Kennedy was dragged into supporting a civil rights bill by Martin Luther King and others. Kennedy was a typical white guy of his time and class. He couldn’t meet today’s politically correct standards.

      Sorensen was a Kennedy hagiographer. He owed his career and fame to him, so I’d take what he said and wrote with a grain of salt.

  • Buddy  On April 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Revisionist history!

    You didn’t answer why JFK was FOR Medicare, FOR a partial nuclear test ban treaty, AGAINST going along with the Bay of Pigs operation and sending in US forces to tackle Castro (then against invading Cuba again in October of 1962!), and why he said what he said in his June 1963 address to the students (and to Americans) at American University. If what you’re saying about Kennedy’s stance on civil rights is true, how come he said what he did to the nation which ticked off the pro-segregationist South in the Summer of 1963? The Freedom Rides he felt pushed him too far, too fast, I’ll agree, but what he said about blacks and whites needing to be able to dine together in the South in the Summer of 1963 is also true. The southerners I remember HATED JFK and cited their hatred of him as being a strong motivation to finally leave the Democratic party and become Republicans. So what you’re saying doesn’t stack up to the facts.

    • Ron  On April 14, 2011 at 11:39 am

      I’m 68, so I remember the real Kennedy and the real Kennedy administration, as opposed to the “updated” Kennedy administration. I don’t remember Kennedy running on a medicare entitlement, nor do I remember him proposing such a program as president.
      Not sure what you mean by Kennedy being against the Bay of Pigs operation. He took an old contingency plan developed in the Eisenhower administration (there are contingency plans to invade France probably) and approved it. I guess you mean that once the initial invasion failed, he refused to send in American forces to back the CIA trained rebels. Some would ascribe that decision to Kennedy’s having cold feet. It’s really difficult to argue that Kennedy was AGAINST removing Castro.

      Yes, after he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy proposed a partial nuclear test ban. I don’t remember many being against that, maybe the Goldwater people.

      You must be talking about the so-called Southern Strategy that Nixon supposedly employed. By that time, there was more on the table than civil rights. By that time, the civil rights movement had evolved into the Black Power Movement with annual summer riots and H. Rap Brown of Burn Baby Burn fame. We also had the spectacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago where mostly privileged “students” and their apologists were shocked, shocked! to find that there were consequences to breaking the law and refusing to follow police directives. Southerners didn’t hate JFK as I remember it. Kennedy was very solicitous of their prejudices and was forced to propose a civil rights bill only when MLK and others forced him to by staging the March on Washington which made Kennedy very uncomfortable, for as I said, he believed that the communists would make propaganda hay out of it. Some Southerners felt betrayed by fellow Southerner LBJ who actually got the legislation passed. But the Southern switch to the GOP was about more than just a protest against civil rights. It was also about the Democratic Party moving to the so-called New Left which was anti-American, pacifist and sympathetic (to say the least) to communism which is more or less the Democratic Party of today except they’ve switched their sympathies for communism to groups like the Palestinians and Islamists.

      Bottom line: Kennedy ran for president, like other politicians of his generation (Nixon and GHW Bush), to pursue, in his words, the “twilight struggle with communism.” Everything else was a distraction to him. Reread his inaugural address: it’s all about the twilight struggle. In fact it was Harris Wolford who persuaded him to alter the line about pursuing freedom (from communism) around the world by putting in “and justice at home,” the only mention of civil rights (and an oblique one at that) or even domestic issues in the famous speech.

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