Joseph A. Palermo: Ross Douthat's Hit Job on JFK





Joseph A. Palermo has written two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia University Press, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson Longman, 2008).

Appearing in the New York Times' "Sunday Review" on the first Sunday following the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is the conservative commentator Ross Douthat's take on the former president. Right-wing pundits rarely make good amateur historians and Douthat's short hit piece, dripping with contempt, is fresh evidence for this conclusion. He sets out to debunk what he calls "premises" and "myths" associated with President Kennedy, but his effort is an embarrassing failure on all counts. Interpreting history is all about nuance and nuance is clearly not the forte of right-wing pundits like Douthat.

Douthat begins his debunking by dismissing a series of straw man premises he ascribes to anyone who has written positively about John F. Kennedy: "The first premise is that Kennedy was a very good president, and might have been a great one had he lived [original italics]. Few serious historians take this view."

"Few serious historians" hold this view because most "serious historians" eschew these kinds of facile assertions. It's impossible to gauge the potential of a leader who was slain at the age of 46 and discern how a dead individual would have conducted himself amidst the changing historical circumstances he never had a chance to encounter. Douthat's claim here can't be proven by historical evidence. And I might add that it was "serious historians" who first uncovered the blemishes on Kennedy's record to which Douthat elsewhere in the piece gleefully points. Their analyses are based on how successful JFK was in getting his legislative agenda passed, and other hallmarks of his presidency, such as the Peace Corps, the Green Berets, and the moon landing. Trust me, "serious historians" who have written about Kennedy such as Robert Dallek or James Giglio are not suffering from a naïve attraction to "Camelot."

Douthat's next point: "The second false premise is that Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam [Douthat's italics]."

It's true that President Kennedy deepened the United States commitment to defending the Saigon regime and created all sorts of problems after he green-lighted the coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem a mere 20 days before his own assassination, but it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson (not Kennedy's "Whiz Kids") who bombed North Vietnam and sent in the U.S. Marines. The slain president's brother and Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, insisted throughout the short period he outlived his brother that JFK was determined not to "Americanize" or "internationalize" the war in Vietnam. Again, Douthat's assertion cannot be proven; he just posits an answer to an oversimplified "what if" ahistorical question. When the viability of the Saigon regime teetered on the brink in 1964, maybe JFK would have followed the same path Johnson did (as LBJ insisted he would have), but then again, maybe not (as RFK insisted). Who knows? (Certainly not Douthat.)

"The third myth," Douthat writes, "is that Kennedy was a martyr to right-wing unreason."

Where he gets this notion is anybody's guess. Many "serious historians" of the period, such as Mark Weisbrot in Maximum Danger, point to the white-hot hatred aimed at the first Catholic president from a host of right-wing extremist groups, most notably the John Birch Society and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the South that identified both John and Robert Kennedy with the federal government's trampling of "state's rights." Douthat ignores the real history of right-wing extremism in the early 1960s by just tossing out the old canard that Lee Harvey Oswald was a "Marxist radical," hence one need not fear the early-60s Far Right. Oswald's alleged political proclivities aside, does Douthat really believe that that tidbit alone allows him to scoff at the venom aimed at JFK during his presidency from right-wing sources?

Elsewhere Douthat practices the weird tactic, common among contemporary right-wingers, of criticizing whatever Democrat or "liberal" who is in their cross hairs from both the right and the left. Douthat deploys this angle when he snipes at Kennedy for being "evasive on civil rights." Yet Douthat's intellectual pedigree of conservatives he admires (including Ronald Reagan) were not exactly prodding Kennedy at the time to do more for disfranchised blacks in the South. Douthat laments Kennedy's lack of quick action on civil rights (which was, of course, a key criticism leveled at Kennedy by voices on the left.) Douthat might benefit from learning more about the Freedom Rides, the racial integration of the University of Mississippi, and the University of Alabama (where Governor George Wallace literally stood in the schoolhouse door), as well as Kennedy's decision to send to Capitol Hill in June 1963 a comprehensive civil rights bill that later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the most important civil rights legislation in a generation). Douthat should be grateful. His political party has benefited immensely from Kennedy's principled stand on civil rights, which the president knew full well would eventually hand over the South's electoral votes to the Republicans.

Not content to trash JFK from every which way and sideways Douthat also calls Kennedy "a serial blunderer in foreign policy," even while calling him a few paragraphs later "a famously hawkish cold war president." Douthat, a partisan Republican, doesn't bother to enumerate these "serial blunders," and one would think he would rejoice in Kennedy's "hawkishness" toward the Soviet Union. Again, Douthat would benefit from watching Kennedy's June 10, 1963 commencement speech at American University. Are the sentiments expressed in that speech representative of a "serial blunderer?" Douthat should also tell us exactly what he doesn't like about the Atmospheric Test-Ban Treaty Kennedy signed with the Soviets, the first treaty of its kind limiting the superpowers' dangerously bloated nuclear arsenals. And what modern president cannot be characterized as a "serial blunderer" in foreign policy? (Certainly not Reagan with his fiasco in Lebanon during his first term, and the Iran-Contra Scandal during his second.) The simple fact is that all U.S. presidents have been fallible human beings with achievements and failures. Douthat's brand of pseudo-historical partisan sniping aimed at JFK is really just kind of gauche, especially near the anniversary of his assassination.

The "Sunday Review" section of the Times is now like an even blander print version of the most tepid chum NPR dishes out over the airwaves. Douthat is out of his league. This piece "evaluating" the presidency of John F. Kennedy is so thoughtless and partisan it doesn't deserve its high perch in the nation's "paper of record."



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