Why JFK was NOT a Republican and never would have been

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President John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty-four years today. It is sad to reflect that he has now been dead longer than he was ever alive. Although his reputation has undeniably been tarnished by revelations about his private life in the years since, he remains, broadly speaking, a much admired figure renowned for his eloquence and charm but also for his cool head at a time of extreme international tension, particularly during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

It is perhaps for this reason that American Republicans, displeased with their poor score sheet in producing decent US presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bush boys, Trump – you see my point?”) have adopted a new tactic: adopting JFK as one of their own. If Kennedy were alive today, they argue, he would not be a Democrat as he was in reality, but a Republican. One author has even produced a book “Kennedy, Conservative” based on this theory.

Some may argue it is a bit silly to try and assume what someone no longer able to speak up for himself would now be thinking. Some might argue the US political system is more fluid than some others, party-wise anyway. After all, Nixon oversaw Detente. The first Bush’s presidency coincided with the end of the Cold War. This does not make them liberals.

Others might feel that suggesting JFK would now be a member of the party headed by Donald Trump is rather dishonouring Kennedy’s memory. They would be right.

But here are a number of other reasons why claiming JFK for the Republican cause is fundamentally absurd:

JFK on communism

Kennedy was definitely anti-communist, sometimes to his detriment, launching the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and beginning the slow escalation of the war in Vietnam. In his anticommunism he is no different from every other post-war Democratic president. Consider: Truman started the war in Korea and established post-war containment policy. Johnson oversaw the disastrous full escalation of the war in Vietnam. Carter presided over an unprecedented military build-up (which Reagan continued).

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JFK and the NRA

JFK was indeed, a member of the National Rifle Association. It was not then, the eccentric assortment of powerful but militant right wingers that it is today.

JFK and taxes

Kennedy did reduce taxes to help stimulate economic growth. In this, he is only as conservative as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (“the tax cuts in the stimulus package, for example, were arguably the largest in history” writes author Robert Schlesinger). JFK’s belief in tax cuts was routed in the context of the times and his Keynesian values too: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He also reduced the top rate of tax to 65%, far higher than it is today.

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 JFK and the rich

It is sometimes claimed the Kennedy family’s immense wealth makes him an unlikely Democrat. Of course, if this was true now, it was then. And it wasn’t true then. Many rich people have been Democrats e.g. Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Soros. It’s irrelevant.

JFK and race

Unlike most Republicans of the time, JFK was firmly in favour of desegregation and pushed hard for civil rights. He would doubtless have been as delighted by Obama’s election in 2008 as his brother Ted was. He would be disgusted by Trump’s cheap, racist anti-Mexican jibes.

JFK and abortion

Kennedy is often referred to as “anti-abortion” by those who want to claim him for the Right. In fact, he never made any pubic pronouncements on the subject.

JFK and social programmes

JFK’s short administration paved the way for the “Great Society” and social programmes such as Medicare.

JFK and walls

Kennedy spoke eloquently against the division and unhappiness, socially divisive walls can create.

Like most right minded people, he would be disgusted by what the Trump administration is doing today. He was a Democrat then and most would assuredly be so today.

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Does being Prime Minister make you live longer?

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An odd feature of post-war British political life has been the longevity of our leaders.

Three former Prime Ministers John Major (72),Tony Blair (62) and Gordon Brown (64) are all still alive and are not yet especially aged.

Nine former British PMs have died since the end of the Second War.

(Churchill, Attlee, Eden, Macmillan , Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher).

Seven out of nine of those who died  lived past 80 years old (Harold Wilson and Sir Anthony Eden both died, aged 79).

Six of the remaining seven made it to 85 (Attlee was 84).

Four of the remainder made it to 90.

Macmillan, Home and Callaghan all died aged 92. Churchill was 90. (Heath, 89 and Thatcher , 87 did not).

Four out of nine post-war prime ministers have thus lived into their nineties. Does being PM increase your lifespan? Or do the sort of people who become Prime Ministers just tend to live longer? It should be remembered that not all UK Prime Ministers have had privileged backgrounds (Thatcher, Heath and Wilson did not nor did Callaghan who lived longer than anyone else).

In the US, four post-war former presidents have lived into their nineties, two of whom Carter and George HW Bush are still alive. Bush is 91, Carter though seriously ill is 90. Ford, the longest lived former US president and Reagan both died aged 93.

Generally, the US trend is less impressive partly because Kennedy was assassinated in his forties and his successor Lyndon Johnson died prematurely at 64.

But overall the stats are still impressive: Hoover died aged 88 (he was not a post-war president but died in the post-war era). Truman died aged 88, Eisenhower was 78 and Nixon, 81. Since 1945, seven former presidents have made it to eighty (as opposed to four who did not) and four have made it to ninety.

Generally, being a world leader does seem to be good for your health.

Why all Democrats love war and all Republicans are wet girly sissies

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We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
Qualifications.
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
Even so…

From battlefields to ballot boxes

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How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity?  Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?

Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.

If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.

Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.

General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.

But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.

Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw,  Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.

Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.

Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.

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Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.

In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.

Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft.  But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.

Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.

In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.

Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?

Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?

Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:

1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.

2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.

2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.

As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.

So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.

In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.

Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.

Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.

Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.

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The quest for a new JFK

Fifty year have now passed since the presidency of John F. Kennedy and one thing is obvious: the US Democratic Party has never escaped the ghost of his memory. True, no member of the Kennedy family has ever been on the presidential ticket in the years since (Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother in law, came the closest as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972). But consciously or unconsciously, the Democrats have repeatedly opted for the man they have perceived to be closest to the charismatic, idealistic Kennedy ideal as their candidate for the presidency. The fact that the Kennedy name has since been tarnished by revelations about his prolific sex life, his dealings with the Mafia and by harsh reassessments of his presidency has made no difference.
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