Archive for Friday, March 23, 2001

History kind to Kennedy legacy

March 23, 2001


— When President Bush wanted to signal this winter that he wanted to stimulate the economy, he quoted John F. Kennedy's line about getting "this country moving again." When he spoke in the Rose Garden for his tax cut, he quoted President Kennedy's remarks that high tax rates "are no longer necessary." And in a major campaign speech about the need for government to retain the confidence of the people, he clinched the argument with a line from President Kennedy.

The prominence of Kennedy in the Bush political idiom represents an important transformation for both presidents.

For Kennedy, it means that, more than a third of a century after his assassination after public grief, popular adulation and prominence in the Democratic pantheon he has finally been accepted as a bipartisan icon. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Kennedy now is more a figure from history than from politics.

For Bush, it means that, like Ronald Reagan who quoted FDR as part of his effort to court disaffected Democrats he is trying to cast himself as a different kind of Republican, one willing to embrace the idols of his opponents in an effort to prove he is different from the stereotypes of his party.

Kennedy has long been a favorite of Democratic politicians, with JFK quotes making frequent appearances in partisan speeches and with JFK mannerisms the hand in the suit-coat pocket, the karate-chop gestures appearing often in Democratic candidates. But, until now, Republicans almost never referred to Kennedy.

Richard M. Nixon, who lost a close presidential race to Kennedy in 1960, shied away from the slain president. Gerald R. Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush also found little reason to make allusions to a president revered by the public as recently as a year ago, JFK was regarded by Americans as the greatest president, according to a Gallup Organization poll but claimed by the Democrats.

But it is far safer now for a Republican to embrace the Kennedy mystique and legacy. Kennedy is no more a part of modern Washington than Harry Truman, another figure who has been transformed from Democratic hero to American hero. In the entire Senate, only two men Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican, and Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat served with Kennedy in the Senate or served in the Senate while Kennedy was president. (A third, Ernest F. Hollings, was the Democratic governor of South Carolina during the Kennedy administration.)

Moreover, Kennedy's image is being recast. Historians now regard him less as a liberal than as a Cold Warrior, which makes him easier for Republicans to accept. He called for a tax cut, which makes conservatives comfortable. Indeed, Bush last month quoted Kennedy as saying that "high tax rates do not leave enough money in private hands to keep the country's economy growing and healthy."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, and Caroline Kennedy, the president's daughter, have criticized Republicans for using President Kennedy's words from a speech to the Economic Club of New York on Dec. 14, 1962, in radio advertisements supporting the Bush tax cut. The current debate over whether Kennedy would have supported Bush's tax cut is, however, far less important than the fact that Republicans are willing to evoke Kennedy's name.

This development comes at roughly the same point in the historical cycle as the recognition that Franklin Roosevelt, though a leading partisan in his time, was more than a partisan figure. Reagan, who voted for FDR four times before undergoing a political conversion, was never reticent in his praise for Roosevelt. And in taking control of the House after four decades of Democratic rule in January 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich pointedly spoke with approval of Roosevelt.

Previous GOP leaders didn't. Dwight D. Eisenhower said he ran for president in 1952 to undo the New Deal, though it was Roosevelt who leapfrogged him in front of others to be the supreme commander of D-Day. Nixon detested his job in the Office of Price Administration, created by FDR, and spoke about Roosevelt only in passing, and then only by matching praise for FDR's mastery with criticism of his economic policies and his actions at Yalta.

"When someone is quoted from the opposition party, it suggests that that president has gained recognition that he is now highly valued and has escaped party identification enough to be recognized by all," says William Leuchtenburg, a University of North Carolina historian and FDR biographer.

One of President Kennedy's most quoted remarks relates to economics: "A rising tide lifts all boats." It turns out that the line also applies to historical reputations. As Kennedy's historical reputation ascends, so, too, does that of his late brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Last week, Bush quoted RFK, too the second time in six months.

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