Historians: Right-Wing Media Claims Of A Conservative JFK Are “Silly” And “Ludicrous”

Historians are throwing cold water on conservatives' “fundamentally ludicrous” attempts to co-opt John F. Kennedy's legacy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. 

In recent days, several conservative media figures -- including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Chris Wallace -- have suggested that if Kennedy were alive today, his views would align with conservatives and the Tea Party. But in interviews with Media Matters historians dismissed these claims as “silly” and “bunk.” 

“It shows me that John F. Kennedy's legacy is so powerful that even those who stand for everything he stood against want to claim his legacy,” said Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton University. As for the right-wing pundits' view of a right-wing JFK? “It's bunk,” says Wilentz. “John F. Kennedy embraced liberalism. He called himself a liberal, he was grateful to get the nomination of the Liberal Party of New York State. He ran on the liberal line.”

Wilentz explained that the idea of him as conservative likely comes from his tax cuts, but he adds, “tax cuts are not necessarily conservative or liberal. The economy was sluggish at that moment, and it was to improve unemployment. Conservatives wanted to radically and dramatically change the income tax, basically collapse it.”

Wilentz and other historians pointed to Kennedy's efforts at drafting the first versions of the 1964 civil rights bill, seeking nuclear disarmament, and supporting health and education funding.

“Was he a liberal? Yeah, he certainly thought he was a liberal and he went out of his way to be a liberal,” said Edward D. Berkowitz, professor of history and public policy and public administration at The George Washington University. “A pro-government kind of liberalism, you can see that clearly in his domestic program. He was a big advocate of Medicare and federal aid to education.”

Jeffrey A. Engle, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and the author of eight books, said describing JFK as conservtive is “a fundamentally ludicrous claim, which fundamentally misreads Kennedy's actual life and imprints upon Kennedy [the] political views that they themselves like. Kennedy fundamentally believed that the government could and should play a vital role in bettering people's lives, be it in education, civil rights, social welfare or the economy and he simply would not have been a conservative, there is just no way around it.”

Allan Lichtman, American University distinguished professor of history, agreed. Although he noted that Kennedy started out his presidency as a “very moderate Democrat,” he adds that “he evolved and changed over time and moved to a much more liberal position internationally and in domestic policy.”

“After the Cuban Missile Crisis, he changed from a cold warrior to an advocate of peace and good relations,” Lichtman added, stating Kennedy "negotiated the most important treaty in the history of the world, the nuclear test ban treaty that stopped the poisoning of the planet by these nuclear tests.

“Domestically, he very much moved to a more liberal position, he understood eventually that civil rights was the wave of the future and became the first U.S. president to morally denounce segregation and he drafted the legislation that ultimately became, under Lyndon Johnson, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Donald Critchlow, professor of history at Arizona State University, also cited the incorrect view of the tax cuts.

“It's rather silly to portray him as a conservative,” Critchlow said, later adding that the tax cut “doesn't make him Republican or a conservative. He was trying to pursue policies, a new policy that would address the issues of three recessions in the 1950s. He wasn't an extreme left-wing Democrat, but he wasn't a Republican.”

Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor, also pointed out the need to take Kennedy in the context of his time.

“He certainly wasn't considered a conservative at the time by the rising conservative movement like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater,” he said.

Ribuffo cited a 1963 speech where Kennedy “made the point over and over again that big government is not necessarily bad.” He also referenced another speech on the Cold War at American University that offered understanding of the Soviet Union.

“I cannot imagine any president giving a speech like that about, say, Iran,” Ribuffo said. “In other words, [saying] that 'you can have your system and let's not get into a confrontation.'”