What happened? There is, of course, a litany of standard answers, from the political to the cultural to the psychological, each seeking to explain the great upheaval summed up in that all-purpose phrase, “the 60’s.” To some, the relevant factor was a long overdue reaction to the repressions and pieties of 1950’s conformism. To others, the watershed event was the escalating war in Vietnam, sparking an opposition movement that itself escalated into widespread disaffection from received political ideas and indeed from larger American purposes. Still others have pointed to the simmering racial tensions that would burst into the open in riots and looting, calling into question underlying assumptions about the course of integration if not the very possibility of social harmony.
No doubt, the combination of these and other events had much to do with driving the nation’s political culture to the Left in the latter half of the decade. But there can be no doubt, either, that an event from the early 1960’s—namely, the assassination of Kennedy himself—contributed heavily. As many observers have noted, Kennedy’s death seemed somehow to give new energy to the more extreme impulses of the Left, as not only left-wing ideas but revolutionary leftist leaders—Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro among them—came in the aftermath to enjoy a greater vogue in the United States than at any other time in our history. By 1968, student radicals were taking over campuses and joining protest demonstrations in support of a host of extreme causes.
It is one of the ironies of the era that many young people who in 1963 reacted with profound grief to Kennedy’s death would, just a few years later, come to champion a version of the left-wing doctrines that had motivated his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. But why should this have been so? What was it about mid-century liberalism that allowed it to be knocked so badly off balance by a single blow?
To recall John F. Kennedy’s brief tenure as President is to be reminded of the distance that American liberalism has traveled since those days. His landmark domestic initiatives, passed with modest adjustments after his death, were a civil-rights bill and a major tax reduction to stimulate the economy. The civil-rights legislation is well known, but many have forgotten Kennedy’s across-the-board, 30-percent tax cut, with the highest rate falling from 91 percent to 65 percent—a measure that, two decades later, would inspire Ronald Reagan’s own tax-cutting agenda.
Kennedy was, moreover, a sophisticated anti-Communist who understood the stakes at issue in the cold war. His inspiring inaugural address in 1961 was entirely about foreign policy and the challenge of Communism to freedom-loving peoples. As President, his most notable victory was achieved by confronting the Soviet Union over its missiles in Cuba and by forcing their removal. And he was nothing if not forthright in declaring America’s universal aims. “Let every nation know,” he famously announced in his inaugural address, “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 success of liberty.” America, he said in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature a week before he took office, was “a city upon a hill,” an example and a model for the entire world.
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I was very young when Kennedy was assasinated -13 years old to be precise. I completely and totally adored Kennedy. I remember his election in great detail because I was a Catholic and there was considerable discussion at the time that a Catholic person could not become president because he would then be controlled by the Pope. There was quite a bit of animosity at the elementary school I went to directed toward Kennedy supporters.
Kennedy was young, handsome, heroic...what was not to like? I listened to every speech he made. He came to the area I lived and I went to hear him speak. I followed him daily in the papers. His sudden, violent death on November 22, 1963 plunged me into an unbearable grief--something I had never experienced in my short life. I was glued to the TV set, saw the assasination of Jack Ruby; watched the funeral procession and the endless debate about what had happened that awful day.
As an adult, I have come to recognize Kennedy's shortcomings and limitations. But, Piereson is absolutely correct--after Kennedy's death something changed for the worse in the Democratic Party; and it has never recovered, nor has it recaptured the momentum that Kennedy once brought to it.
It is Kennedy's strong anti-communist stance and exhilarating defense of liberty that are most indelibly etched on my brain today. Kennedy was killed by an ardent communist; and it occurs to me that, if it were left to the Democrats who followed him, we would be all speaking Russian in a brave new world.
His brother was later assasinated by an ardent Palestinian, upset that Kennedy supported Israel. If it were left to the Democrats today, I wonder if we would abandon Israel. Almost certainly, we would be heeding the call to daily prayer.
The Democrats certainly keep drifting further and further away from anything I could ever support.