Who Can Claim Kennedy?

It’s likely you’ve failed to escape noticing if you’ve been anywhere near media today that it’s the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. I grew up in a unquestioningly Democratic household, and prior to swallowing the “red pill” that one life experience in particular offered me at age 23, I was a down the line Democrat like them. My parents are still on that side of the fence, so political conversation will be avoided at all costs during next week’s Thanksgiving celebration. My parents revere President Kennedy, and via them, I grew up doing so myself.

And now, I’m going to commit “true conservative” heresy.

It’s time we stopped letting Democrats and liberals wrap themselves in John F. Kennedy and own his legacy on their revisionist terms. President Kennedy’s message was one of American exceptionalism and uniqueness, not equivalency with the rest of the world. It was a message of American strength and resolve, and the prudent use of that strength in foreign and military affairs. It was a message of economic growth and fiscal control. All three of those message areas are anathema to the modern Democrat party.

No, John F. Kennedy should belong to us, the conservatives and the libertarians. Yes, I hear you all screaming at your computers right now that this is the most ridiculous precept ever. Social conservatives are already rattling off all their memorized talking points about JFK’s philandering – as if Tea Party “true conservatives” are without their own personal faults, even some to the same vice as Kennedy. Fiscal conservatives are railing on Kennedy’s quite cavalier view of debt and deficits (although the amounts and scope thereof should be contextualized) and predisposition towards government-centric solutions – as if the Republican Party, while in power or not, has managed to stop spending escalation and government growth at any time since Calvin Coolidge ninety years ago.

In my pre-”conservatarian” awakening days in the early 1990s, I purchased a Kennedy compendium volume assembled – and also importantly, edited and excerpted – by JFK speechwriter and White House counsel Theodore C. Sorenson entitled, “Let the Word Go Forth”: The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy, 1947 to 1963. The book was originally published on October 1, 1988, in the closing days of the Reagan Administration. The timing of its publication I think is significant, especially when once considers Mr. Sorenson’s liberal use of the ellipsis, aspects of which I’ll detail below.

I still dip into that book occasionally, although admittedly the Internet is a better on-demand resource for looking up quotes. I keep it because Kennedy possessed an eloquence and command of the language in delivering his message that few politicians have or have had. His delivery commanded attention. His presentation of lofty themes, inspired. His embracing of courses of action he felt necessary but politically risky or unpopular, courageous. His challenging of naysayers and opposition was fearless and principled. In short, he was a statesman.

Besides those three aforementioned attributes, a particular mark of a statesman’s writings and speeches are their timelessness. One should be able to take a “stateful” piece and remove date references or contextualization to a particular set of circumstances and have it still carry lasting meaning. The Churchill Centre did that in the wake of 9-11 with the address Winston Churchill made to emergency responders after the Blitz in London on July 14, 1941 entitled “You Do Your Worst – and We Will Do Our Best”. Another such example is Ronald Reagan’s “A Time For Choosing”, delivered on October 27, 1964 in support of Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid against Lyndon B. Johnson, and just two years after Reagan himself left the Democratic Party for the GOP. Similar examples are easily found throughout Kennedy’s writings and speeches.

Anybody who is compiling anything close to an honest list of the top Presidential addresses back to  George Washington on April 30, 1789 has got to put JFK’s January 20, 1961 Inaugural Address prominently on it. The timeless overall theme to that speech is one everyone who reads this should well embrace: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” It’s not, however, the Kennedy piece I’m going to use to illustrate my point.

I’m going to use the speech President Kennedy didn’t live to deliver this day fifty years ago, his address planned for the Dallas Trade Mart on November 22, 1963, as the example of why we on this side need to claim him, and why our opposition wants so desperately to disguise what the 35th President was really about. Sorenson placed the planned November 22 address appropriately last in his Kennedy collection, on pages 401-405 of the hardcover edition. I encourage you to follow the link and read the entire text, as I’ll only be quoting parts. Sorenson’s redactions in his book from what Kennedy prepared are indicated by blue text. The omissions start right at the beginning.

I am honored to have this invitation to address the annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council, joined by the members of the Dallas Assembly – and pleased to have this opportunity to salute the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest.

It is fitting that these two symbols of Dallas progress are united in the sponsorship of this meeting. For they represent the best qualities, I am told, of leadership and learning in this city – and leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. The advancement of learning depends on community leadership for financial and political support and the products of that learning, in turn, are essential to the leadership’s hopes for continued progress and prosperity. It is not a coincidence that those communities possessing the best in research and graduate facilities – from MIT to Cal Tech – tend to attract the new and growing industries. I congratulate those of you here in Dallas who have recognized these basic facts through the creation of the unique and forward-looking Graduate Research Center.

This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs. Ignorance and misinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country’s security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.

There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.

Really no surprise that Sorenson excised Kennedy’s intro. Why? The Dallas Citizens Council and Dallas Assembly, the two sponsors of the event, are private civic organizations extant today and not governmental bodies. The Graduate Research Center, originally an establishment of Texas Instruments Incorporated to boost technical innovation in industry, is today known as the University of Texas at Dallas. Perish the thought that a Democrat would be so effusive in praising the private sector in an area liberals feel should be solely the providence of government: education.

I think that the “link between leadership and learning” being “essential” locally and “indispensable in world affairs” are very interesting eliminations in the context of when Sorenson’s collection was set into print. Ronald Reagan’s leadership during the 1980s is self-evident in foreign affairs, and his rhetoric and actions with respect to the Soviet Union and that of Kennedy are more alike than not. Reagan, however, was universally thought in liberal circles to be stupid.

Any possible connection between the two Presidents has to be buried.

The negatives at the close of the opening paragraphs I’m sure we all could say about the opposition. But it would be well to heed them when looking at ourselves, particularly “expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor.” Being the party of “no” may boost fundraising for grassroots organizations, but it does little to build the broad consensus needed for electoral victories or win converts to the cause. The next block quote follows in the text immediately after the one above:

But today other voices are heard in the land – voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will “talk sense to the American people.” But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.

We could simply replace “the sixties” with “the times” and the first sentence would be just as applicable to 2013 as to 1963. Today we have a national debt that isn’t being reduced as a burden, and today certainly is one of the greatest single threats to our security. Contextualized to the size of government in 1963 versus today, it’s likely Kennedy wouldn’t be as forgiving about the proportion of federal employees or the spending and borrowing habits of the government, regardless of party in charge.

Was he as great a believer in fiscal restraint and limited government as I am now? Hardly. Was he orders of magnitude better on those points than today’s Democrats? Unquestionably. Was his desire in policy to always trend towards and achieve balanced budgets? Most definitely.

Don’t believe it? Read his Special Message to the Congress on Budget and Fiscal Policy from March 24, 1961. Heck, you can make a case that John F. Kennedy was more serious about striving for balanced budgets than any Republican president since the aforementioned Coolidge. Kennedy said:

I want to discuss with you today the status of our strength and our security because this question clearly calls for the most responsible qualities of leadership and the most enlightened products of scholarship. For this Nation’s strength and security are not easily or cheaply obtained, nor are they quickly and simply explained. There are many kinds of strength and no one kind will suffice. Overwhelming nuclear strength cannot stop a guerrilla war. Formal pacts of alliance cannot stop internal subversion. Displays of material wealth cannot stop the disillusionment of diplomats subjected to discrimination.

The Sorensen redaction is consistent with the previous one. The Kennedy-era defense expansion and modernization, particularly for strategic forces, is paralleled by that of Reagan twenty years later. both Kennedy and Reagan pursued defense modernization while pursuing negotiation and détente with the primary enemy.

Again, this is silenced because it would be devastating to liberal narratives about Kennedy if his “enlightened” policies were favorably compared with Reagan’s. The next paragraph is one all should know, regardless of your side of the political aisle.

Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.

Since September 11, 2001, what started as a determined effort against terrorism got diluted into military quagmire and wrecked ambitions that persist today. Twelve-plus years of war have taxed the brave men and women of our military, and their equipment, to the breaking point. Diplomatically, situations have gotten no better. Across the world, the United States’ influence is on the wane. We are perceived as weak, determination has been supplanted by flexibility, and words, indeed, are of no help.

Honestly, I can’t think of a more succinct description of the principles an American foreign and defense policy should encompass that’s better than those four sentences.

Kennedy’s speech would then have launched into a lengthy recitation of the improvements to national defense and successes in foreign policy during his administration. There’s just one segment of it that I’d like to point out, and it’s another Sorenson redaction:

In less than 3 years, we have increased by 50 percent the number of Polaris submarines scheduled to be in force by the next fiscal year, increased by more than 70 percent our total Polaris purchase program, increased by more than 75 percent our Minuteman purchase program, increased by 50 percent the portion of our strategic bombers on 15-minute alert, and increased by too percent the total number of nuclear weapons available in our strategic alert forces. Our security is further enhanced by the steps we have taken regarding these weapons to improve the speed and certainty of their response, their readiness at all times to respond, their ability to survive an attack, and their ability to be carefully controlled and directed through secure command operations.

In the context of 1988, this is another essential redaction for a liberal to make. Kennedy had Polaris, Minuteman, and increased alert bombers. Reagan had Trident, Peacekeeper/MX, and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles/Pershing II missiles in Europe. Both understood clearly that the strategic deterrent capability of the United States was essential to preserving world peace. But they can’t show that Kennedy and Reagan were alike in any way whatsoever, remember.

Looking at present-day nuclear ambitions of nations like Iran, the lack of seriousness our own deterrent forces have shown in recent years, and the fact that our primary world adversary — Russia — is well along in modernizing their own strategic forces, we’d be well advised to take a page from both Kennedy and Reagan in this area. Our land-based strategic deterrent is still the same Minuteman missiles Kennedy was heralding in 1963. A program begun during the George W. Bush administration to begin modernizing our nuclear arsenal (the Reliable Replacement Warhead) was cancelled in 2009.

Kennedy would have closed his speech with a discussion of strength at home, which brings to light another aspect of Kennedy’s philosophy of governance liberals would prefer left unsaid, and Sorenson saw to it in his book.

Finally, it should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live. And only an America which is growing and prospering economically can sustain the worldwide defenses of freedom, while demonstrating to all concerned the opportunities of our system and society.

It is clear, therefore, that we are strengthening our security as well as our economy by our recent record increases in national income and output – by surging ahead of most of Western Europe in the rate of business expansion and the margin of corporate profits, by maintaining a more stable level of prices than almost any of our overseas competitors, and by cutting personal and corporate income taxes by some $ 11 billion, as I have proposed, to assure this Nation of the longest and strongest expansion in our peacetime economic history.

This Nation’s total output–which 3 years ago was at the $500 billion mark–will soon pass $600 billion, for a record rise of over $too billion in 3 years. For the first time in history we have 70 million men and women at work. For the first time in history average factory earnings have exceeded $100 a week. For the first time in history corporation profits after taxes–which have risen 43 percent in less than 3 years–have an annual level of $27.4 billion.

My friends and fellow citizens: I cite these facts and figures to make it clear that America today is stronger than ever before. Our adversaries have not abandoned their ambitions, our dangers have not diminished, our vigilance cannot be relaxed. But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom.

A “social justice” reference today carries far different connotations than it did 50 years ago. In that day, I doubt you’d have found even a plurality of America say we would elect a non-white president by 45 years later.

We’ve got to find a way to get ahead of the inevitable cries of discrimination and fear mongering from the opposition — pointing out the unchanged rhetoric over fifty years is one way to do it. Same goes for the issue of a”fully educated” populace. We’ve spent more than ever before on education, more and more every year per capita since 1963, and yet our children remain uneducated compared to the rest of the world.

Now, look at what Sorenson redacted from that segment. Praise for expanding corporate profits. Maintaining price stability. Cutting taxes. All supply-side messages. All diametrically opposed to the aims and positions of present day Democrats. The recounting of GDP and wage growth had to be excised too, lest another comparison be drawn to the Reagan presidency.

And note: not a single word from President Kennedy about the world’s ills being America’s fault. America is only a means to “sustain the worldwide defenses of freedom.”

Many of us have used Ronald Reagan’s famous quote from his first inauguration as Governor of California when alerting people to the precariousness of our liberties at the hands of man and the state:

Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.  It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.  Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.

So, my friends, the next time you have occasion to use Reagan’s words to sound the clarion or to try and open eyes to the risks to our liberty and republic, might I suggest you use the closing John F. Kennedy had planned for Dallas instead?

We in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

This ex-Democrat encourages you learn Kennedy’s words and never let the opposition get away with making him into a politician and leader he wasn’t, attributing to him policies and beliefs he actually eschewed. Use their own guy against them and for us. His memory deserves the truth.

Today’s Democrats have run away from the real John Fitzgerald Kennedy. We’ll win over more people by embracing him than denigrating him. Of that, I’m convinced. Find faults, certainly, in the opposition, but where favor can be found in them, like we all should do with President Kennedy slain fifty years ago today — run with it.