John F. Kennedy, the father of the Reagan Democrats, would have been 95 this week.
(Page 2 of 5)
Yet Liberals, who began as the rightful heirs to the New Deal, have carried on as a kind of landed aristocracy, gifted but doomed.
The new book in Robert Caro’s biographical series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power has received considerable attention for Caro’s detailed depiction of LBJ’s transition from powerful Senate Majority Leader to a virtual impotence as Kennedy’s vice president. But there’s a clue in this book as to the future decline of liberalism that is completely overlooked (and wasn’t published until after Tyrrell’s). A clue that revolves around the treatment of Vice President Johnson by Kennedy insiders and JFK’s Washington admirers — a treatment, it is important to note, that was never ever exhibited by JFK himself.
While Kennedy gave strict orders that LBJ was to be treated at all times with the respect due his office — and this was in an era when vice presidents customarily went unused by presidents, a fate that had befallen all vice presidential occupants from the nation’s first, John Adams, to Johnson — there was something else bubbling just below the surface in the Washington that was the Kennedy era.
Robert Caro describes it this way:
Washington had in many ways always been a small town, and in small towns gossip can be cruel, and the New Frontiersmen — casual, elegant, understated, in love with their own sophistication (“Such an in-group, and they let you know they were in, and you were not”, recalls Ashton Gonella) — were a witty bunch, and wit does better when it has a target to aim at, and the huge, lumbering figure of Lyndon Johnson, with his carefully buttoned-up suits and slicked-down hair, his bellowing speeches and extravagant, awkward gestures, made an inevitable target. “One can feel the hot breath of the crowd at the bullfight exulting as the sword flashes into the bull,” one historian wrote. In the Georgetown townhouses that were the New Frontier’s social stronghold “there were a lot of small parties, informal kinds, dinners that were given by Kennedy people for other Kennedy people. You know, twelve people in for dinner, all part of the Administration,” says United States Treasurer Elizabeth Gatov. “Really, it was brutal, the stories that they were passing, and the jokes and the inside nasty stuff about Lyndon.” When he mispronounced “hors d’oeuvres” as “whore doves,” the mistake was all over Georgetown in what seemed an instant.
Johnson’s Texas accent was mocked. His proclivity for saying “Ah reckon,” “Ah believe,” and saying the word “Negro” as “nigrah.” On one occasion of a white tie event at the White House, Caro writes of LBJ that “he wore, to the Kennedy people’s endless amusement, not the customary black tailcoat but a slate-gray model especially sent up by Dallas’ Neiman-Marcus department store.” The liberals populating the Kennedy administration and Washington itself were people with an affinity for words, and they began to bestow on Johnson — behind his back — nicknames such as “Uncle Cornpone” or “Rufus Cornpone.” Lady Bird Johnson was added to the game, and the Johnsons as a couple were nicknamed “Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop.”
None of this, Caro notes, was done by John Kennedy himself. JFK had an instinctive appreciation for Johnson’s sense of dignity, and he thought Lady Bird “neat.” This is, in retrospect, notable.
Let’s rocket ahead now to what Bob Tyrrell calls The Death of Liberalism. In particular the numbers — polling data. Tyrrell spends an entire chapter discussing polling data, as well he should. His findings are the ultimate teachable moment as we settle into the 2012 Obama-Romney race.
By 1968 — five years after the death of JFK and in the last of the five years of the Johnson presidency — the number of “self-identified” conservatives began to climb. Sharply. The Liberal dominance Lionel Trilling had written about had gone, never to this moment to return. Routinely now in poll after poll that Tyrrell cites — and there are plenty of others he doesn’t have room to cite — self-identified liberals hover at about 20% of the American body politic. Outnumbered more than two-to-one by conservatives, with moderates bringing up the remainder in the middle.
What happened in those five years after JFK’s death?
One very compelling thing.
The attitude toward Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson that was evidenced by Kennedy’s liberal leaning staff, by the Washington Georgetown set, by Washington journalists — slowly seeped into the sinews of liberalism itself.
Recall Caro’s descriptions of people who were “in love with their own sophistication,” who were “such an in-group, and they let you know they were in, and you were not.” Think of the snotty arrogance displayed as these people laughed at LBJ’s accent, his mispronunciations, his clothes, his wife (“Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop”).
Slowly, and then not so slowly, these elitist, arrogant and if not outright snotty attitudes sought out a new target during the years when LBJ was sitting in the White House — when, in the view of these people, “Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop” had replaced the King and Queen of Camelot.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?