JFK and the Death of Liberalism - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
JFK and the Death of Liberalism

May 29th of this week marked John F. Kennedy’s 95th birthday.

Had he never gone to Dallas, had he the blessings of long years like his 105 year old mother Rose, the man immutably fixed in the American memory as a vigorous 40-something surely would be seen in an entirely different light.

If JFK were alive today?

Presuming his 1964 re-election, we would know for a fact what he did in Vietnam. We would know for a fact what a second-term Kennedy domestic program produced. And yes, yes, all those torrent of womanizing tales that finally gushed into headlines in the post-Watergate era (and still keep coming, the tale of White House intern Mimi Alford recently added to the long list) would surely have had a more scathing effect on his historical reputation had he been alive to answer them.

But he wasn’t.

As the world knows, those fateful few seconds in Dallas on November 22, 1963 not only transformed American and world history. They transformed JFK himself into an iconic American martyr, forever young, handsome and idealistic. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination–and in spite of all the womanizing tales, in spite of the passage of now almost half a century–John F. Kennedy is still repeatedly ranked by Americans as among the country’s greatest presidents. In the American imagination, JFK is historically invincible

All of this comes to mind not simply as JFK’s 95th birthday came and went this week with remarkably little fanfare.

As readers of The American Spectator are well familiar, TAS founder and Editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. has a new book out in which he details The Death of Liberalism.

Once upon a time — in 1950 — Bob Tyrrell notes that the liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling could honestly open his book The Liberal Imagination with this sentence:

In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.

It was true in 1950 — and it was still true on the day John F. Kennedy’s motorcade began to make its way through the streets of Dallas.

It was still true a year later, when Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson swamped the GOP’s conservative nominee Barry Goldwater.

But something had happened by 1964. Something Big. And it’s fair to wonder on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s 95th birthday if in fact that Something Big would ever have happened at all if Kennedy had not been in Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun sight that sunny November day almost 49 years ago.

In short, one wonders. Did the bullets that killed JFK hit another target — liberalism itself? Unlike JFK, not killing liberalism instantly but inflicting something else infinitely more damaging than sudden death? Or, as Tyrrell puts it, inflicting “a slow, but steady decline of which the Liberals have been steadfastly oblivious.” 

While LBJ would ride herd on American liberalism for another year, in fact the dominant status of liberalism in both politics and culture that Trilling had observed in 1950 had, after JFK’s murder, curiously begun to simply fade. Not unlike Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat, leaving nothing behind but a grin. Writes Tyrrell: 

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.

That new target?

The American people themselves. They had, after all, elected LBJ in a landslide in 1964. Now Uncle Cornpone was the elected President of the United States. To make matters more unbearable, LBJ was using his newfound power and popularity to actually pass the liberal agenda of the day, which Johnson labeled “The Great Society.” Uncle Cornpone, it seemed, wasn’t such a ridiculous figure after all when it came to getting the liberal wish list through the Congress.

No one better than JFK would have known instantly what a huge mistake this elitist attitude would be. Discussing the relationship of a presidential candidate with the American people, JFK had told historian and friend Theodore H. White, author of The Making of the President series, that, in White’s re-telling, “a man running for the Presidency must talk up, way up there.” It was a principle Kennedy surely would have applied to his own party — and did so while he was president. Not from JFK was there a drop of elitist contempt — from a man who unarguably could claim the title in a blink — for his fellow countrymen.

But in a horrifying flash, JFK was gone. And the elitist tide spread.

Slowly this contempt for the American people spread to institutions that were not government, manifesting itself in a thousand different ways. It infected the media, academe and Hollywood, where stars identified with middle-America like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were eclipsed in the spotlight by leftists like Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda.

The arms-linked peaceful civil rights protests led by Christian ministers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gave way to bombings and violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War led by snooty, well-educated white left-wing kids like Bill Ayers. The great American middle class — from which many of these educated kids had sprung — was trashed in precisely the fashion LBJ had been trashed. For accents, clothing styles, housing choices (suburbs and rural life were out) food, music, the love of guns, choice of cars, colleges, hair styles and more. Religion itself could not escape, Christianity to be mocked, made into a derisive laughingstock. The part of America between New York and California became known sneeringly as “flyover country.

As time moved on, these attitudes hardened, taking on colors, colors derived from election night maps where red represented conservative, Republican or traditional candidates and blue became symbolic of homes to Liberalism.

Red States. Blue States.

Liberal candidates hoping to carry Red States or even Purple States had to hide the contempt they felt for their own constituents. When Governor Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary snapped in a 60 Minutes interview over her husband’s infidelities that:

You know, I’m not sitting here — some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.

— the Clinton campaign quickly swung into damage control mode, an apology as quickly forthcoming.

Sixteen years later it was Barack Obama’s turn, the candidate caught on audio tape describing Pennsylvania voters to a fundraising audience of rich, fashionable San Francisco liberals as:

bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The Obama and Hillary Clinton expressions were about as far as one could get from JFK’s conception that when running for president one has to talk “way up there” to the American people.

By now, millions of Americans have come to see the elitism that once was directed privately at LBJ in Georgetown salons as an ingrained characteristic of Liberalism. Even NBC’s Tom Brokaw is getting antsy at the insiderdom on televised display at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Think of the treatment of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin versus that afforded Hillary Clinton. The treatment of Clarence Thomas — versus Barack Obama.

Self-identify with that kind of treatment? Of course not. Compounding the problem for liberals is that this attitude is linked to what Tyrrell accurately calls Obama’s “Stealth Socialism.” And the combination of the two is proving to be politically deadly.

Here’s a JFK-Obama contrast.

In 1960, JFK determined that if he were to win the Democratic nomination he would in fact have to win the West Virginia primary. Why West Virginia? Because Kennedy was Catholic, no Catholic had ever been elected president — and West Virginia was heavily Protestant. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight — a furious battle against Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. In an upset, a legend in West Virginia politics to this day, JFK won. By emphasizing his PT-109 heroism in World War II and his support of coal mining — and coal miners.

What happened the other day in the West Virginia Democratic primaries? That’s right. A Texas prison inmate named Keith Judd paid the $2,500 filing fee to get his name on the ballot opposing Obama — getting 40% of the vote. Why this particular humiliation? Right again. The President’s “Stealth Socialism” — specifically in West Virginia his energy and environmental policies — are seen by West Virginians as savaging the state’s coal industry. A world away from the JFK approach.

And let’s not forget the double standard that elitist liberals in the media love when it comes to their fellow countrymen.

What was one of the most notable stylistic aspects of the Kennedy presidency that had Georgetown parlors and the liberal media of the day swooning with admiration?

Exactly. They loved Jackie Kennedy — specifically they absolutely adored that the First Lady was an accomplished horsewoman. Scenes like this video of Jackie riding with her children in the Virginia hunt country – as JFK watched from nearby — were staples of the liberal media, the only media, of the day. If one grew up in the Kennedy era it is recognized instantly, particularly the scene where Caroline’s horse “Macaroni” is nibbling on JFK as the President laughs. Horseback riding as Mrs. Kennedy pursued it was an expensive hobby then — as now. And this fact was lavishly presented to the American public as a sign of class — both financial class and as in “classy.”

What was the big story about Ann Romney the other day? Take a look at Breitbart.com where they have neatly caught onto the sneering elitism that is falsely ascribed to Ann Romney because — yes indeed — just like Jackie Kennedy, Ann Romney rides horses. With one very big difference. In Mrs. Romney’s case horseback riding was prescribed as therapy for her multiple sclerosis. Now, however, as was true with a big front page story in the New York Times, Republican Ann Romney is involved with a “rarified sport.” Translation: Mrs. Romney is a snob. What’s fabulous for Jackie is snooty for Ann.

Which leads us back to where we began.

Had John F. Kennedy been alive and well this week, celebrating his 95th birthday, one can only wonder whether liberalism would have survived with him.

This is, after all, the president who said in cutting taxes that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” Becoming The favorite presidential example (along with Calvin Coolidge) of no less than Ronald Reagan on tax policy. This is, after all, the president who ran to the right of Richard Nixon in 1960 on issues of national security.

In fact, many of those who voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960 would twenty years later vote for Ronald Reagan. One famous study of Macomb County, Michigan found 63% of Democrats in that unionized section of autoworker country voting for JFK in 1960. In 1980, same county, essentially the same Democrats — 66% voted for Reagan. The difference? Liberalism was dying.

There is a term of political art for these millions of onetime JFK voters — a term used still today: Reagan Democrats. It is not too strong a statement to say that in point of political fact John F. Kennedy was the father of the Reagan Democrats.

Would JFK have let the arrogant liberal elitism that was bubbling under the surface of his own administration metastasize to so many American institutions — including his own party — had he lived?

Would he have sat silently as the liberal culture turned against the vast American middle and working blue collar class and its values, sending JFK voters into the arms of Republicans in seven out of twelve of the elections following his own?

Would he have fought the subtle but distinct change of his famous inaugural challenge from “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” to what it has now become: “ask not what you can do for your country, ask what service your government can provide you?”

We will never know.

But there is every reason to believe, after all these decades, that, to use the title of JFK biographer William Manchester’s famous book, The Death of a President, brought another, quite unexpected death in its wake.

The Death of Liberalism.

Jeffrey Lord
Follow Their Stories:
View More
Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com. His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, http://spectator.org. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!