Questioning Camelot

Our favorite gag by the late Johnny Carson always followed his occasional failed monologue jokes about Abraham Lincoln., when he would exaggeratedly grimace at the audience’s silence and then turn to Ed McMahon to say “Too soon.”
The old show-biz admonition to allow a considerate pause between tragedy and comedy is very much on our mind as we approach Friday’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. A half-century is still too soon to be jocular about something so tragic as a presidential assassination, but neither are we inclined to join in the incessant hagiography that has become a cottage industry since Kennedy’s death.
It is altogether fitting and proper that the coverage of the anniversary should be respectful, but it should also be true. Most of the media can be expected to take full advantage of the opportunity to trot out all of the left’s most cherished myths about St. Kennedy of Camelot, which will be presented anew to the gullible generations too young to recall the reality of his presidency and too incurious to have learned about it, and there will be the usual efforts to cast the light of this revisionist history on current events. A more truthful account, as usual, would be more useful.
Kennedy will be recalled as a charismatic exemplar of modern liberalism, a sort of paler ‘60s prototype of President Barack Obama without all the computer glitches, but many of his policies would be anathema to today’s Democrats. Perhaps Kennedy’s brightest idea was a massive tax cut, which not only drastically lowered rates for businesses but also dropped the now-hated top 1 percent’s rates from the confiscatory 91 percent that had last through the allegedly right-wing Eisenhower administration to a still-exorbitant 70 percent, and it set off such an economic boom in the ensuing decade that the country could afford hippies. Some of his policies reflected the traditional Democratic enthusiasm for busy-body big government, but on the whole the bootlegger’s son seemed to have a natural affinity for capitalism.
The peaceniks in the Democratic party should also be reminded by that Kennedy ran as a stauncher cold warrior than the world champion commie-baiter Richard Nixon, and cultivated a very masculine image based largely on his war exploits. He vowed at his inaugural to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” which is hard to imagine Obama ever uttering, and was true enough to the words to incur the wrath of at least one Castro-loving left-winger with Marine marksmanship training. After failing to pay any price or bear any burden during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attack in Cuba, and an unimpressive summit in Vienna, Kennedy made less of an impression on the Soviet leadership, leading to the Berlin Wall crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and a widespread uneasiness that the world was about to go up in a nuclear mushroom cloud, but the response was least more muscular than the modern Democrats would be comfortable with.
There’s no way of proving or disproving the left’s holy writ that Kennedy would not have further involved America in the Vietnam War, which is the basis of all the more creative conspiracy theories regarding his assassination, but there is cause for doubt. It should be noted that Kennedy did increase the number of military advisors in the country, that President Lyndon Johnson further escalated the war with combat troops on the advice of the same “best and brightest” advisors that Kennedy had chosen, and with the same “pay any price, bear any burden” rhetoric of his predecessor, and that Kennedy had been sufficiently interested in Vietnam’s civil war to tacitly green-light a coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Kennedy’s father had seen his own presidential ambitions devastated by a defeatist isolationism prior to World War II, and his brief years in office suggest he had learned well not to pass on a war that might prove popular. Liberals are still entitled to their Gnostic faith that no Castro-loving left-winger would have ever shot Kennedy, we suppose, but the enduring theory that the Great Society and the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act and the rest of the Johnson administration was a right-wing conspiracy strikes us as highly implausible.
Kennedy wasn’t so liberal as Johnson, but he wasn’t nearly conservative enough that the right should embrace his legacy. His initial wobbliness on foreign affairs was almost Obamaian, he had the same rhetorical tendency as his Democratic successors to ink of his countrymen as a collective rather than individuals, and of course there was the reckless and dangerous womanizing that liberals were obliged to defend during the Clinton years. Most of the blame for the disastrous social engineering efforts of the ‘60s falls on Johnson, but almost all of it was sold as an idea that the sainted Kennedy had vaguely proposed in one of his bleeding heart speeches. That Kennedy remains such an iconic figure on the left is sufficient reason to question his legacy thoroughly.

— Bud Norman