The rhetorical question could just as easily be rephrased to elicit the same answers: What's not to like about JFK?
Most of the commentary I read on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22nd 1963 exuded a special, repulsive kind of adulation, combined with almost tearful reminiscences of what the country was like half a century ago (it was a bad country, ready to be knocked into shape by a great leader) and plaintive projections of what it could have been had JFK been allowed to complete his presumably first term in office (it would have been a good country, able to take its place among the best welfare states in the world).
The joke is on the sigh-filled dreamers. We have in President Barack Obama's two terms almost precisely what JFK would have created: a semi-socialist, semi-fascist government dedicated to "leading" the country to "greater" things, an administration determined to marshal Americans to march in lockstep in the direction the White House and its allies in Congress wish us to go, complete with a "charismatic" icon of a leader, glib of tongue and murky in his motives.
Much of the commentary was so maudlin that it caused one to wonder about the mental health of the individuals who wrote it. For example, the New York Times chose to reprint humorist Art Buchwald's New York Herald Tribune poem, "We Weep," from November 26, 1963:
We weep for our President who died for his country.
We weep for his wife and for his children.
We weep for his mother and father and brothers and sisters.
We weep for the millions of people who are weeping for him.
We weep for Americans, that this could happen in our country.
We weep for the Europeans.
And the Africans.
And the Asians.
And people in every corner of the globe who saw in him a hope for the future and a chance for mankind.
We weep for our children and their children and everyone's children.
For he was charting their destinies as he was charting ours.
We weep for the Negro who saw in him a chance for a decent life.
Had enough? There are two more stanzas, just as bad, but I thought you should be spared them. Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post, in her November 22nd "A Tribute to John F. Kennedy," picks up Buchwald's lachrymose sentiment fifty years later, but adds something revealing about herself and how she perceived the country in November 1963:
…Neither the truth nor the myth of the man seems to matter as much as the deeply personal experience of hearing the words:
“A death in the family” is how many have described that day, and this is as accurate as any explanation, especially for people who were children then. The president and Mrs. Kennedy were more than the nation’s first family; they were our parents, too. We identified with the children and looked up to the grown-ups….
Thus, when Kennedy died, we lost our symbolic father and our grief was for ourselves as well as the Kennedys….
If truth be told, when I learned of JFK's death, I felt nothing. As a high school senior, I'd felt nothing but an irritation with the man, coupled with a sense of impending doom, which I was able to identify only years later. Listening to his speeches grated against my aural sensibilities; it was like hearing someone run his fingernails down a blackboard. I'd watched film clips of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini haranguing rapt crowds on television, and JFK gave me that same feeling, that he was an ominous threat to my life and to my future, and that if I stood in the way of the leagues of admiring, emotion-driven mobs, I'd simply be trampled to death.
This was not a pretty or flattering observation to make about "my fellow Americans."
But I never then nor have I ever regarded JFK or Jackie Kennedy as "parents" to "look up to." I did not want a "leader," did not want to be lead, did not want to be "taken care of," did not want to be immersed in some hideous, identity-erasing gestalt of national purpose. The notion of "belonging" to a collective was an alien and repellant one.
In fact, I grew to despise the whole Kennedy clan, from Joe Kennedy, Senior, who made his initial fortune as a bootlegger, clear up to Ted Kennedy, whose political career should have been aborted because of Chappaquiddick, Mary Jo Kopechne, and the charge of homicide that was never levied against him, but in whose name and memory ObamaCare was largely passed, and all of JFK's children. The whole spoiled, power-lusting bunch of them.
I despised the JFK "Camelot" myth as much as I mistrusted the whole FDR myth, because it was the unreserved canonization of these two political figures which caused me to smell something rotten in Denmark.
I subscribe to a number of "pro-freedom" weblogs. Some of these organizations are scarier than any George Soros Progressive organizations. Liberty Counsel, which touts the line that the U.S. is founded on Biblical principles, is one of those. I received this "alert" just this morning:
Yesterday, as a nation, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The words most associated with JFK came from his 1961 Inaugural Address, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” It’s not hard to see how far “progressive” liberalism has taken our nation away from this simple patriotic proclamation in 50 years and how foreign that concept is to the current administration.
Religious American conservatives are not the only ones smitten with JFK. Europe doesn't seem to have lost its ardor for him. For example, here are the words of a Briton, Sean Collins, Spiked's American correspondent, on the 50th anniversary:
…Most of all, Kennedy injected a sense of dynamism and optimism into politics, and people were willing to believe in him. He encouraged public activism and responsibility, in his call ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’. He aimed high, urging a manned flight to the moon before the end of the decade (even though the technology to do so was hardly evident). Americans were problem-solvers, and there were few limits to what could be achieved - that was his message.
JFK came to symbolise optimism and idealism (even if he didn’t ultimately live up to it), and his assassination appeared to be the death, not just of the man, but of what he symbolised. People hoped Kennedy would bring a new era of prosperity and innovation; but as the years passed, his assassination appeared to mark the beginning of an era of decline. Reagan, Clinton and Obama attempted to reintroduce optimism into American politics, but all paled in comparison with the genuine optimism that greeted JFK, and all ultimately proved to be let-downs.
In many ways, not a few of them scandalous, JFK served as a "role model" for another destroyer of the country, Bill Clinton. One thing that anchored the political philosophy connection between Clinton and JFK was the startling, full-page photograph of 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK in the White House Rose Garden. I think I saw it in the New York Times, and have that page buried somewhere in my archives. I dubbed it, "Passing the Torch." A video was made of the encounter. That photograph, however, concretized what I had observed was the perilous direction the country was taking.
I left this comment on a November 22nd FrontPage article, "Fact, Democrats, and the JFK Legend," by Bruce Thornton, who debunks JFK's legislative record:
JFK was a fascist. Any president or president-elect who asks Americans what "they can do for their country" is simply emulating what Hitler asked of Germans and Mussolini asked of Italians. "I'll cut taxes and shake my fist at the Commies, but you have to follow me and live for the country, not for yourself." Compared to current Democrats and Progressives, JFK looks squeaky clean, almost nostalgic. But he was still bad news. If he'd said in public that the government should get out of the economy and out of education, I'd cut him some slack. But, like his fellow Democrats, he just assumed that the government had a mission to run the economy and educate Americans. He was a statist, and a fascist to boot.
No one today dares call JFK a fascist. But his style, his rhetoric, and his behavior all comport with the means and ends of fascism. JFK, on a European tour before he entered politics, expressed admiration for the Nazis. Only last May, in a book review by Alan Hall in the British Daily Mail, it was revealed that JFK wrote in his journal:
'Fascism?' wrote the youthful president-to-be in one. 'The right thing for Germany.' In another; 'What are the evils of fascism compared to communism?'
And on August 21, 1937 - two years before the war that would claim 50 million lives broke out - he wrote: 'The Germans really are too good - therefore people have ganged up on them to protect themselves.'
And in a line which seems directly plugged into the racial superiority line plugged by the Third Reich he wrote after travelling through the Rhineland: 'The Nordic races certainly seem to be superior to the Romans.'
Other musings concern how great the autobahns were - 'the best roads in the world' - and how, having visited Hitler's Bavarian holiday home in Berchtesgaden and the tea house built on top of the mountain for him. He declared; 'Who has visited these two places can easily imagine how Hitler will emerge from the hatred currently surrounding him to emerge in a few years as one of the most important personalities that ever lived.'
Liberal columnist Dylan Matthews, in his November 22nd Washington Post opinion piece, "Americans think John F. Kennedy was one of our greatest presidents. He wasn’t," credits Lyndon Johnson with accomplishing what JFK set out to do but was assassinated before he could realize his legislative goals.
Conservative George Will, however, claims JFK was a "conservative." In his November 20th Washington Post column, "The JFK we had and the memory that lives," he wrote:
…Many who call him difficult to understand seem eager to not understand him. They present as puzzling or uncharacteristic aspects of his politics about which he was consistent and unambiguous. For them, his conservative dimension is an inconvenient truth. Ira Stoll, in “JFK, Conservative,” tries to prove too much but assembles sufficient evidence that his book’s title is not merely provocative.
A Look magazine headline in June 1946 read: “A Kennedy Runs for Congress: The Boston-bred scion of a former ambassador is a fighting-Irish conservative.” Neither his Cold War anti-communism, which was congruent with President Harry Truman’s, nor his fiscal conservatism changed dramatically during his remaining 17 years.
It was left to his successor in office, Lyndon B. Johnson, to create the massive welfare state which JFK was sure to have pushed for himself, given his pragmatic way of finding things for government to do and purposes for Americans to hove to, to win brownie points with an mesmerized public and a forgiving news media. Rand Simberg, in his November 22nd USA TODAYcolumn, "Dear NASA: President Kennedy just wasn't that into you," casts credible doubts on JFK's commitment to an American space program, calling NASA a "centralized state-socialist bureaucracy that we established to beat the Soviets' state-socialist bureaucracy to the moon."
Larry Sabato in his November 20th Washington Post column, "Lead like John F. Kennedy," lists JFK's strong and weak points. Among the strong points was his way with words and not needing an electronic cue card/teleprompter to deliver speeches, as does the current specimen in office:
Kennedy hired a superb wordsmith, Ted Sorensen, who substantially wrote JFK’s book “Profiles in Courage,” his stirring inaugural address and many other well-known speeches. Yet Kennedy was no parrot. He was a marvelous editor and wordsmith, too, and he could talk extemporaneously without a text for long stretches.
Sorensen wrote JFK's signature statement: "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Or apparently it was plagiarized (by Sorensen and JFK in a "collaborative" composition of the inaugural address of January 20th 1961) from an oft-repeated homily by JFK's headmaster at the elite Choate School, according to a November 1st, 2011 book review by the Daily Mail of Chris "Tingle" Matthews' Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.
U.S. author Chris Matthews makes the claims in Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. He unearthed notes written by George St John, the President’s former headmaster at Choate School in Connecticut, which suggest he had been aware of the 'ask not' line for many years.
The papers quote a Harvard College dean's refrain: 'As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask not "what can she do for me?" but "what can I do for her?"'
And Matthews is an admirer of Kennedy, not motivated to smear or denigrate JFK.
But whether or not the inaugural address line was plagiarized, it deserves parsing. What JFK said before speaking that line is important to take into context. He was, with very little ambiguity, asking Americans and the country to devote themselves to "saving" the world for "freedom," although what he meant by "freedom" is lost in an ambiguity deliberately calculated to appeal to emotions, not reason. He was sanctioning the federal government's taking the lead in that "selfless" campaign in "a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." This echoes Wilsonian Progressivism, which called for the U.S. to become the supreme global exemplar of selfless service to "noble causes." This is unadulterated altruism.
Much of the inaugural address was written as an answer to the Soviet Union. Nowhere in it does JFK hint at what Americans were asking their country (or him) to do for them. Doubtless, JFK was not asking Americans to fight for their country by championing individual rights, the sanctity of private property, and freedom of speech. Far from it. Liberty was the last thing on his mind.
But the person who nailed JFK's politics and warned of the dangers he represented to the country was novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, long before he was assassinated, long before anyone else began to smell something rotten in Washington D.C.
In her provocative column, "The Fascist New Frontier," based on an address she gave at Ford Hall Forum in Boston in 1962, she wrote:
The difference between [socialism and fascism] is superficial and purely formal, but it is significant psychologically: it brings the authoritarian nature of a planned economy crudely into the open…. [p. 98]
Under fascism, citizens retain the responsibilities of owning property, without freedom to act and without any of the advantages of ownership. Under socialism, government officials acquire all the advantages of ownership, without any of the responsibilities, since they do not hold title to the property, but merely the right to use it—at least until the next purge. In either case, the government officials hold the economic, political and legal power of life or death over the citizens…..[p. 98]
Under both systems, sacrifice is invoked as a magic, omnipotent solution in any crisis—and “the public good” is the altar on which victims are immolated. But there are stylistic differences of emphasis. The socialist-communist axis keeps promising to achieve abundance, material comfort and security for its victims, in some indeterminate future. The fascist-Nazi axis scorns material comfort and security, and keeps extolling some undefined sort of spiritual duty, service and conquest. [p. 106]
But, surely, freedom of speech would be guaranteed under a fascist régime, wouldn't it?. Quite the contrary, wrote Rand.
Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government—and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. A “right” does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort. Private citizens cannot use physical force or coercion; they cannot censor or suppress anyone’s views or publications. Only the government can do so. And censorship is a concept that pertains only to governmental action. [p. 106]
By what means could the government establish censorship without scaring men off, without calling it censorship? By pressure applied by the myriad federal agencies that regulate business and men's actions in the private sphere of our "mixed economy." Rand wrote:
The dividing line – the frontier – between a "mixed economy" and a dictatorship lies in the issue of freedom of speech; the establishment of censorship is the tombstone of a free country. Observe the concerted efforts of the administration to push – or rather, to smuggle – us across that particular frontier. I say "to smuggle," because these efforts are as devious as the New Frontiersmen's use of language – and the fog of their terminology is here at its thickest….[pp. 105-106]
…Rule by hidden, unprovable intimidation relies on the victims' "voluntary" self-enslavement. The result is worse than a censored press: it is a servile press. [p. 109]
And what have we had for at least the last half century but a servile, boot-licking press that cheers on any candidate who preaches "volunteerism" and "wealth redistribution" and deference to the "public good" and all the other collectivist panaceas?
Barack Hussein Obama was only a year old when Rand wrote those words. But they apply to him and his administration as well as to JFK and his administration. And I think, tough as she was, she would have swooned in disbelief at the state of a country that would elect the likes of Obama – twice. (She died in 1982.)
What's to like about JFK?
I would say: Nothing.
*"The Fascist New Frontier," by Ayn Rand, in The Ayn Rand Column. Ed. Peter Schwartz. Irvine CA: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1998.