21 Reasons JFK Was Actually A Conservative

Fifty years after the assassination, the author of the new book JFK, Conservative explains how John Kennedy paved the way for Ronald Reagan.

1. He cut taxes.

Via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The Kennedy tax cuts, passed by the House in September 1963 and by the Senate after Kennedy’s death, cut the top individual income tax rate to 70% from 91% (Kennedy had wanted the income tax rate lowered to 65% and the long-term capital gains rate cut to 19.5% from 25).

2. He told a liberal Harvard economics professor to “shut up” when he opposed Kennedy’s tax cuts.

Via Evening Standard / Getty Images

He told John Kenneth Galbraith to shut up. John Kenneth Galbraith, the 6-foot, eight-inch tall liberal Keynesian Harvard economics professor, opposed the Kennedy tax cuts, preferring increased government spending instead. As Galbraith described it, Kennedy finally lost patience: “The president told me to shut up about my opposition to tax cuts.”

3. He said Al Gore’s dad was a “son of a bitch.”

Al Gore Sr., the father of Bill Clinton’s vice president, was a Democratic senator from Tennessee who opposed the Kennedy tax cuts as a bonanza for “fat cats.” Kennedy described Gore as a “son of a bitch.”

4. He favored free trade.

Via Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Kennedy’s highest priority with Congress in 1962 was trade negotiation authority, which gave him power to negotiate tariff reductions. Opposing taxes on goods imported from overseas, he sounded like a member of the Tea Party: “When the people of Boston in 1773 threw cargoes of tea into the harbor, the American Revolution was in effect underway.”

5. He was really, REALLY anti-Communist.

Via Getty Images

Asked by one journalist why he was pressing for a perjury charge against a labor leader, he said the man had led “a commie strike.” Richard Nixon recalled in his memoir that during the 1960 presidential debates, “Kennedy conveyed the image — to 60 million people — that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was.” At the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960, Kennedy said, “The enemy is the communist system itself — implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination.” And at Berlin in 1963, Kennedy said, “There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.”

6. He invaded, then blockaded Cuba.

Via Ron Case / Getty Images

Kennedy OK’d the Bay of Pigs invasion, backing Cuban rebels in their attempt to dislodge the Communist Fidel Castro. When that failed and the Soviets later sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, Kennedy disregarded the counsel of dovish advisers who told him to ignore the weapons. Instead, he ordered the U.S. Navy into action.

7. He escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington tells the story: 16 Americans killed in Vietnam in 1961, 53 in 1962, 118 in 1963. The American antiwar movement that peaked in the late 1960s started as a protest against President Kennedy’s war in Vietnam.

8. He was very religious.

Via Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Kennedy attended mass weekly, sometimes more, and knelt to pray at bedtime. He skipped his bacon for breakfast on Fridays to remember the day of Jesus’ death. “He was just as good a Catholic as I am,” said Boston’s Cardinal Cushing. Of course, not all religious people are politically conservative. Kennedy justified his political beliefs, though, by explaining that Americans believed people had certain rights that came from God, and by contrasting that with the godless Soviet Union.

9. He appointed one of the two justices who dissented against Roe v. Wade.

Via Getty Images

Byron White (left), a Kennedy Surpeme Court appointee, was one of only two justices who dissented against the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that found women had the constitutional right to an abortion. White’s dissent accused the Roe majority of “interposing a constitutional barrier to state efforts to protect human life.” White also wrote the majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick, refusing to strike down a Georgia law against sodomy.

10. He called abortion repugnant.

Via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Abortion in 1960 was not the hot political issue it would later become, but “population control” was a topic of discussion. As a senator, Kennedy was asked, “Do you see any hope at all of slowing up the rate of population increase?” Kennedy’s reply was somewhat dismissive. “Now, on the question of limiting population: As you know the Japanese have been doing it very vigorously, through abortion, which I think would be repugnant to all Americans.”

11. The law was the law, even if it meant killing someone.

An assistant special counsel to President Kennedy, Lee White, recalls a federal death penalty case in which White recommended “this fellow’s life shouldn’t be taken.” The president responded, “Is there any circumstances, in your view, under which somebody’s life should be taken?” White said no. Kennedy replied, “Well, what does the law say?” White later recalled, “I told him. He said, ‘OK. Let’s don’t have you advising me then that I shouldn’t take people’s lives.’ And that guy was put to death.”

12. He went slow on civil rights.

Via Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. called the Kennedy administration’s approach on civil rights “essentially cautious and defensive.” After King gave his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington, Kennedy met with him and the march’s organizers and suggested “with all the influence that all you gentlemen have in the Negro community…[you] really have to concentrate on what I think the Jewish community has done on educating their children, on making them stay in school, and all the rest.”

13. He was not a big spender.

Kennedy’s annual federal budget deficits were all lower than Eisenhower’s had been in 1959. Even space exploration, in some ways Kennedy’s signature program, was subject to tight spending discipline; Kennedy said it should be focused on beating the Russians to the moon: “Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”

14. Except when it came to the military.

Via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

During Kennedy’s reign, spending increases were concentrated on the military, the defense budget rose 20% and he boasted that he had “doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces” as well as “increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Europe by over 60%.”

15. He was tough on unions.

As a senator, one of Kennedy’s main efforts was a campaign against what he called “the cancer of labor racketeering.” He criticized union leaders who he said “practice extortion, shakedowns, and bribery.”

16. He wanted to reform welfare.

Via Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

His famous inaugural address line, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” was later described by journalist Chris Matthews as “a hard Republican-sounding slap at the welfare state.” Kennedy followed through with welfare policy stressing “training for useful work instead of prolonged dependency.”

17. He was friendly to the oil and gas industries.

This was before the concern about global warming, but even so, Kennedy wrote a letter in the 1960 campaign defending the oil depletion allowance, a tax break that modern liberals hate. In a 1961 message to Congress on regulation, Kennedy spoke of the job-creating value of natural gas pipelines and asked Congress to change the law to exempt more pipelines and gas producers from federal regulations.

18. Kennedy gave conservative speeches.

On July 4, 1946, he said America had been “strengthened by Christian morality” and criticized “the cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals.” On Jan. 29, 1950, at Notre Dame, he said, “The ever expanding power of the federal government, the absorption of many of the functions that states and cities once considered to be the responsibilities of their own, must now be a source of concern to all those who believe as did the Irish Patriot, Henry Grattan: ‘Control over local affairs is the essence of liberty.’”

19. The press actually described him as a conservative.

“A Kennedy Runs for Congress; The Boston-bred scion of a former ambassador is a fighting-Irish conservative,” Look magazine headlined an article in its June 11, 1946, issue. The Chicago Tribune reported Kennedy’s election to the Senate in 1952 by describing him as a “fighting conservative.” On Dec. 7, 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked in a television interview what she would do if she had to choose between a “conservative Democrat like Kennedy and a liberal Republican [like] Rockefeller”?

20. His friends and staff described him as conservative.

Via Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

A campaign staffer and congressional aide, William Sutton, described Kennedy’s political stance in the 1946 campaign as “almost ultraconservative.” “He was more conservative than anything else,” said a Navy friend of Kennedy’s, James Reed, who went on to serve as assistant Treasury secretary in the Kennedy administration. Kennedy’s speechwriter and longtime aide, Ted Sorensen, said, “Kennedy was a fiscal conservative. Most of us and the press and historians have, for one reason or another, treated Kennedy as being much more liberal than he so regarded himself at the time… in fiscal matters, he was extremely conservative, very cautious about the size of the budget.”

21. Ronald Reagan loved to use Kennedy as an example.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both mentioned Kennedy in justifying their tax cuts and foreign policy. As Reagan put it in 1984, “Whenever I talk about…John F. Kennedy, my opponents start tearing their hair out. They just can’t stand it.”

22. For sources and more details, check out JFK, Conservative.

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