The Magazine

GWB & JFK

There's one thing Bush could learn from the president he most resembles.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Both came to office by defeating sitting vice presidents. JFK had the harder task--Eisenhower was immensely popular, Clinton was not; and of course JFK had the Catholic issue to deal with. He was the first (and so far only) non-WASP American president.

In Lyndon Johnson and Richard Cheney, they both picked strong vice presidents who knew a lot more about Washington than they did.

In office they faced similar economies in basically the same ways. Both believed in the free market with the utter heartfeltness that (in the last analysis) only a rich man can muster. And, naturally, when big business let them down, they took it personally: When it happened they both talked so tough, and so clearly meant what they said, that they scared hell out of the business community. George Bush blew up at Enron. JFK did something similar in April '62, when the major steel companies announced price rises in contravention (the president thought) of a promise they had made his administration, when it pressured steel workers to accept modest, "non-inflationary" wage increases. JFK launched withering rhetoric--and his brother. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was no man to mess with. He was a Kennedy and a half, and savored the taste of fresh raw power--ice-cold, alive, with a squeeze of lemon; some men couldn't stomach it, but Kennedys ate it for breakfast--and a few days later, the steel companies cancelled their price rises and crept away whimpering on their bellies.

Still more important: Both faced decent but slowish economies; both prescribed tax cuts--JFK after much hand-wringing over the deficit. Kennedy needed stronger growth and lower unemployment to prepare for the '64 election. "Our tax system," he reflected in late 1962, "siphons out of the private economy too large a share of personal and business purchasing power." "Rising tax receipts and the eventual elimination of budget deficits"--now he is defending his tax cut bill in July '63--"depend primarily on a healthy and rapidly growing economy." In September '63 he went on television to say that high income tax rates were not merely unnecessary: "They are, in fact, harmful." (He sounded almost startled.) His tax reductions passed the House that September, but Senate approval was uncertain. The bill finally made it under Johnson in '64.

BOTH MEN took civil rights seriously--although the issue seems to mean far more to Bush than it ever did to JFK. One of the stranger aspects of the Trent Lott story is the idea that Republicans must do penance for their long history of racial misconduct. It is the Democrats, of course, with the long history. Strom Thurmond was a Dixiecrat, not a Dixiecan, because the home base of any white southern politician in the heyday of segregation could only be the Democratic party.

Bush is and Kennedy was a big believer in military strength--although on this issue JFK came down much harder. When the Soviets heated up Berlin in the summer of 1961, Kennedy asked for tripled draft calls, much higher defense spending, and sacrifice all around. He talked a language of sacrifice that no Republican (let alone Democrat) would touch with a ten-foot pole nowadays. "Many American families will bear the burden of these requests. Studies or careers will be interrupted; husbands and sons will be called away. . . . But these are burdens which must be borne if freedom is to be defended."

They both drew on strong, sure senses of national honor, on natural combativeness, on a willingness to fight and not shrink. (Kennedy on NATO's exposed position in West Berlin, summer '61: "I hear it said that West Berlin is militarily untenable. And so was Bastogne. And so, in fact, was Stalingrad. Any dangerous spot is tenable if men--brave men--make it so.") Bush is and JFK was not merely a patriot but a proud, combative patriot. (Kennedy's inaugural address: "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." A fine sentence, deservedly celebrated and remembered.)