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The Man and the Myth

Why prudent politicians embrace the JFK legacy.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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And that is part of his appeal. “Unlike many former presidents, and almost all current top politicians, Kennedy is not seen as a particularly partisan or ideological figure; he has transcended the liberal label applied to most Democrats,” Sabato insists, “not least because his policies were defined by the Cold War and conservative economics.”

Some liberals reject this view of JFK. David Greenberg, a professor at Rutgers University, says Kennedy’s enduring appeal can’t be explained solely by the “Camelot mystique or Kennedy’s premature death.” Rather, he says, “Kennedy’s hold on us stems also from the way he used the presidency, his commitment to exercising his power to address social needs, his belief that government could harness expert knowledge to solve problems—in short, from his liberalism.”

Greenberg, by the way, reviewed Sabato’s book unfavorably in the Washington Post, prompting Sabato to complain in a letter the Post published. Objecting to a review may be bad form, but The Kennedy Half-Century deserved better. I’ve read few of the current crop of Kennedy books, but I can’t imagine a more scintillating take on JFK and his legacy than Sabato’s.

Why do liberals feel compelled to claim Kennedy as ideological kin? “Because they know John F. Kennedy is a powerful symbol and can be used to sanctify causes across the ideological spectrum,” Sabato said. “Liberals want to reclaim Kennedy as uniquely their own. Maybe they also remember how effectively President Reagan used JFK’s words and deeds to fortify his anti-Evil Empire policies as well as his successful quest for a big across-the-board tax cut.”

Liberals particularly want to deny “another GOP president .  .  . the chance to seize Kennedy’s banner.”

But at least in Reagan’s case, one high-profile liberal demurred. “I was not one of those ‘irritated Democrats’ when you quoted my father,” John Kennedy Jr. wrote in a note to Reagan in 1985. “I thought it was great! Please quote him all you want!”

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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