JFK on the Rocks

One trait of the progressive left is that its contempt for the past leads it sooner or later to turn on their own previous heroes. The environmental left has long detested Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal for things like the massive dams on the Columbia River and elsewhere, along with other big infrastructure projects. The so-called “anti-racist” left attacks FDR for perpetuating segregation in housing (with some justice in this case).

And so it is with relish that we note Michael Kazin, a deep-fried leftist historian, turning on John F. Kennedy in the pages of the New York Review of Books. The article is actually a long review of the first part of a new JFK biography by Fredrik Logevall that appears to offer a more objective and critical treatment of JFK than most previous biographies. (The first volume only carries the JFK story up through 1956.)

For those without NYRB access, here are a few of the best bits:

Why, nearly six decades after his murder, do Americans still care so much about and, for the most part, continue to think so highly of John Fitzgerald Kennedy? . . .

Most Americans of any age are probably unaware that Kennedy achieved little of lasting significance during his legendary thousand days in office. Aside from a big tax cut, he signed no major domestic policies into law, and his only enduring diplomatic success was a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests, which he accurately described as merely “a single step” on “a journey of a thousand miles” toward the goal of stopping the race to Armageddon. . .

[L]ike Dad, Kennedy treated an unending series of other women as disposable receptacles for his lust—a habit that continued for the rest of his life. . .

[T]o Eleanor Roosevelt and other keepers of the New Deal flame, it was clear that this rising star would sacrifice liberal principle for the sake of victory. . .

Knowing white southerners were uneasy about a Catholic from New England, he sought to reassure them, once again, that he was no firebrand about civil rights. On national TV, he dodged a question about whether the Democratic platform should endorse the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on school desegregation. . .

The president from Camelot may gently descend from the lofty position in popular memory he has occupied for nearly six decades. Aside from a few places like the Kennedy Space Center and that sprawling airport in New York City, his name adorns few institutions of note. He is honored by no holiday, and while admirers and family managed to install a monument to Dwight Eisenhower near the Washington Mall last year, no movement exists to do the same for his successor. During the 2020 campaign, one might have expected Joe Biden to evoke the only other Irish Catholic elected to the White House, but he ran instead as the disciple of the first African-American to get there. Given how the demographic makeup of the Democratic Party has changed over the past six decades, that was a sensible as well as inevitable decision. Perhaps the admiration of Kennedy as the last white liberal icon will give way to a sober evaluation of how the relentless pursuit of global power by politicians like him too often betrayed the promise of their altruistic oratory. “Unhappy the land that needs heroes,” wrote Bertolt Brecht in 1939, a sly reference, in his play about Galileo, to the leader of his own nation and a warning to citizens of other lands too. Americans who have been divided, often quite bitterly, since Kennedy lost his life would do well to finally take that wisdom to heart.

Alas, I have run out of popcorn.

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