by James Taichi Collins
Last month, the unthinkable happened in Massachusetts. Incumbent Ed Markey – a 74-year-old that most people in the commonwealth likely never even heard of – defeated challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy III in the Democratic Primary for the Senate. This was the first time a “Kennedy” was defeated in Massachusetts, where the name is synonymous with royalty. Rep. Kennedy led in the polls from the point he entered the race last year until late spring of this year. Yet Senator Markey outflanked him from the left by championing key progressive policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The Kennedy brand was also on the ballot – as witnessed in a campaign ad that John Nichols of The Nation called the “best ad of the 2020 campaign cycle.” In it, Markey evoked John F. Kennedy’s most famous phrase with the words, “we asked what we can do for our country. We went out. We did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” Markey’s relegation of JFK’s adjuration to the past was as effective as it was apparent.
I celebrated Kennedy’s defeat and was refreshed to see the Democratic base finally reject political dynasties. Neither Joe Kennedy’s name nor youth resonated with young voters, who overwhelmingly sided with Markey. (One poll showed Markey was favored by 71% of voters 18 to 29 years of age.) What mattered more to Millennials and Gen Zers at a time when a pandemic and forest fires were ravaging the country was that Markey was a supporter of universal healthcare and a “Green New Deal Maker.”
But “the dream shall never die,” as Ted Kennedy famously declared. So, of course, we can expect the Kennedy Dream to continue with Joe 3.0, who will almost surely receive consolation prizes that will sustain his family’s political empire: If Biden becomes president and chooses Elizabeth Warren for a cabinet position, Kennedy might have another opportunity to run for Senate. And it is not inconceivable that Joe himself could get a comfortable job somewhere in a Biden administration. But even if these things don’t happen, the Kennedy legacy seems sure to continue to haunt the melodrama of American politics. Any liberal politician who can wring out enough nostalgia for the Kennedy years can expect to draw a fevered following.
We don’t need to look very far to see the Kennedy legacy at play. Even without a genuine “prince of the blood” on the political scene, pretenders seeking to vest themselves in the quasi-royal mantle of Camelot abound. We see it in political newcomers that run on “generational change” like Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Pete’s infatuation with his Kennedy idol led him to follow in his Harvard footsteps, serve in the military, and emulate his literary achievements. (Buttigieg was the 2000 winner of the JFK Library’s Profile in Courage essay contest.) We see the same legacy in Beto O’Rourke, who awkwardly sought to evoke the Kennedy aura by mounting car hoods during rallies. Back in 2007, it was John Edwards, whom Newsweek mused upon as “the next Robert Kennedy.” (Even in his ultimate disgrace, for marital infidelity, Edwards was a candidate in the Kennedy mold). Looking abroad, we see the Kennedy legacy is alive and well: from the oh-so-smart Justin Trudeau in Canada to the oh-so-handsome Emmanuel Macron in France. This familiar political icon that the political elite dust off and parade every election year is a fixture in the legacy of JFK – the first presidential candidate to win in the television era. More modern versions might come in the form of a suave, young, white man, arguing to cut capital gains tax in seven different languages. Or a Super Woke wonder-boy pledging to battle white supremacy by having more people of color as drone operators.
And who could argue against imitating the Kennedy brand for political gain? The Kennedy name is everywhere. When I travel, I fly out of JFK airport. When I go to my favorite library in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, there is a JFK statue. Everywhere I go, in the U.S or abroad, the Kennedy name is on streets and parks. At least 197 schools are named after JFK, and not least among them is the “Harvard Kennedy School.” Even NASA’s space center is named after JFK. Perhaps no post-WW2 President has been as beloved as Kennedy, with a 2013 Gallop poll showing that 74% of adults find him an “outstanding or above-average president.”
But when we look closely, we see that Kennedy’s actual legacy has not been one of progress, but of regression in liberal politics. And the political style that Kennedy engendered is one of deception. The familiar plot unfolds first with the political elite introducing the public to a young, charismatic man suffering from a white-savior-complex. The candidate then runs on the idea of “change,” – but the bait gets switched. Genuine change that would lift working-class people is recast as generational change. Their means do not include class struggle, but “compromise,” “working towards the middle,” and “healing the divide.” They manage to sustain their popularity through charisma and symbolic gestures that signal to the center-left. But ultimately, their interests are vested in the maintenance of the status quo.
To understand this phenomenon, we need only re-read JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage. Here Kennedy praises famous (or infamous) statesmen (and they are all men) who served in halls of Congress years before Kennedy himself became a senator. The list includes John Quincy Adams, Robert Taft, and other names that today might be expected to raise an eyebrow among careful readers.
In his third chapter, Kennedy profiles former Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster during the crisis of 1850. Webster, a Whig, and opposed to slavery on principle, was approached by the “Great Compromiser” Henry Clay to support the Compromise of 1850 to preserve the Union and avoid Southern secession. As readers of history know, the Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed the federal government to track down runaway slaves in the North and send them back to the South. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Bill” after the dogs used to track down fugitive slaves. Despite its preservation of such an egregious practice, Webster conceded to Clay and gave his support to the compromise. JFK’s assessment of Webster’s actions is quite revealing for our understanding of the Kennedy legacy. The future president writes of Webster’s decision: “the preservation of the Union was far dearer to his heart than his opposition to slavery.” (p.62)
It is this decision to preserve the state’s national security – even if it meant maintaining the genocidal practice of slavery – that Kennedy offers up as an example of courage. Nowhere does Kennedy acknowledge the real horrors of slavery. Nor does he lament how the Compromise of 1850 allowed this brutal system to continue for another ten years. Instead, Kennedy’s pity is for Webster, whom the abolitionists made a political pariah. The rightful ire directed at Webster from those more motivated by a respect for human life and dignity becomes, for Kennedy, a cross that Webster had to bear. “There could be no mistaking he was a great man,” Kennedy writes. (p.58)
Kennedy doesn’t stop with Webster. In the following chapter, he goes on to praise Thomas Hart Benton: A former senator from Missouri who opposed slavery yet refrained from supporting the abolitionist cause. Benton preferred to remain a Democrat with a contrarian role, refusing to take either side in the great moral question of his day. Again, we see Kennedy’s admiration for a political agenda that “works towards the middle.” And a stance that might well have been characterized as moral cowardice is held up as a profile in courage. But what’s especially shocking about this chapter is what it omits. Kennedy completely glosses over how Benton was a key architect behind Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion policies. Benton even seems to have justified the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans when he wrote, “Civilization, or extinction, has been the fate of all people who have found themselves in the trace of the advancing Whites.” But Benton, in Kennedy’s eyes, demonstrated “courage” throughout his career because his priority was to preserve the Union. What he did to Native Americans was incidental; moreover, it was commendable as it was done in the name of strengthening the national security of the state.
Nowhere does Kennedy give a more outlandish example of courage than in Chapter 6 of his book when he lauds former Kansas Senator Edmund Ross. A Republican who went against his party, Ross cast the critical deciding vote to acquit President Andrew Johnson of impeachment. Now widely regarded by historians as one of the worst presidents in U.S history, Johnson preferred a lenient policy towards the South regarding reconstruction, vetoing various civil rights legislation in the aftermath of the Civil War. However, JFK describes President Johnson as “courageous” and cites an unnamed historian’s characterization of Edmund Ross’ vote to save Johnson as “the most heroic act in American history.” (p.115) Was Kennedy unaware that Ross was bribed to vote to acquit Johnson? His demonstrable ability to overlook moral inadequacy suggests that it might not have mattered. The real corruption for Kennedy was that Johnson’s impeachment was a political push by the Radical Republicans and that “the actual cause of which the President was being tried was not fundamental to the nation’s welfare.” (p.120) In JFK’s view, a president who denies equal treatment to newly freed slaves does not pose a problem fundamental to the nation’s welfare. What was paramount for Kennedy was protecting the executive branch’s independence from the political whims of Congress and preserving the status quo of government.
This will to compromise in order to safeguard national security, or the state’s standing is the hallmark of Kennedy-style politics. The “virtue” extolled in Kennedy’s little book played out in the way he governed. We see several antithetical policies: While attempting to appease the American left, on the one hand, JFK sought to crush communists at all costs on the other – as his disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion bears witness. He proposed tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans with a dubious argument that can only have been meant to beguile the working class. The cozy hope contained in “a rising tide lifts all boats” conveniently omits the plight of those who are left treading water. (Pizzigati, p.295) A similar sleight can be seen in JFK’s attempt to evade real action on civil rights domestically by supporting independence movements in Africa. The concession was meant to keep Southern whites’ support while signaling sympathy to the cause of black voters. (Dudziak, p.155) He was reluctant to act on civil rights when entering office, paying lip service to Martin Luther King, Jr. while allowing the FBI to wiretap him. Ironically, a critical time when Kennedy should have compromised was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If Kennedy had compromised and removed the U.S missiles in Turkey that had threatened the Soviets in the first place, we might have avoided what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the most dangerous moment in human history.“
Kennedy’s protégés have copied him not only in his manners, speech, and image. They have continued his politics of “working towards the middle” – complete with all its contradictions. Justin Trudeau can have a racially diverse cabinet while trampling on Native lands to build oil pipelines. Emanuel Macron can pretend to welcome refugees while introducing stricter immigration controls. Democrats from Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rouke can walk back support for Medicare for All (which could save millions of lives) with the bromide of compromise in the name of unity and bipartisanship.
But the real danger of Kennedy’s legacy lies not in his domestic policies, but in what he did abroad, particularly to Vietnam. If the “preservation of the Union” (i.e., the state’s national security) becomes the sole standard for political action, there is nothing to stop a liberal like Kennedy from acting like a Daniel Webster. Protecting the state’s interests becomes the ends to justify the means.
Kennedy is not always associated with the Vietnam War, the blame for which now mostly falls to Nixon and LBJ. But Agent Orange – the chemical weapon approved by Kennedy – continues to plague Vietnam, where birth defects are still increasing more than 40 years after the war. More bombs were dropped in the Quang Tri province alone than the “whole of Germany during World War 2, and more than two million liters of poisonous Agent Orange were dumped on it.” Many children are born deaf. Some are paralyzed. And their suffering is made more cruel and unjust by the fact that the individual who caused their misery is celebrated around the world.
It is customary to dismiss the uglier aspects of war and forgive those responsible for assuming that their actions were somehow well-intended or honorably motivated. The perpetrators of war get the benefit of the historians’ doubt. Far be it from me to ascribe malice to Kennedy in his willingness to bomb Vietnam. But looking back at Kennedy’s heroes, it is hard not to examine his motivations for the use of Agent Orange without recalling his admiration for Thomas Hart Benton: who wrote that “the Yellow race […] still far below the White and like all the rest, must receive an impression from the superior race whenever they come in contact.”
It is no surprise, then, that militarism is tolerated in modern liberalism. Take how the Democrats attack Donald Trump. Of all the things they can criticize the President for – from Russia, corruption, or the tweets – none of the major Democratic candidates for President during the primary made an issue of the fact that Trump has drastically escalated the drone war. During Obama’s eight years in office, there was already a record 1,878 confirmed drone strikes. But just during Trump’s first two years in office, there were 2,243 confirmed drone strikes, and we are still counting. Drone strikes are highly inaccurate, with some estimates suggesting that 90 percent of the people killed “were not the intended targets.” We can only conclude that hundreds, if not thousands of civilians have been killed under Trump. And yet, the resistance liberals have made no demand to end Trump’s drone war. It is as if they are creating a precedent for endless wars, so that the next liberal President can continue the “preservation of the Union” at all costs.
But what has “preservation of the Union” actually done for the welfare of the country? The Kennedy style of politics has failed to prevent the crises we are now facing. The COVID virus is killing hundreds of thousands. Black men and women in this country are facing arbitrary violence for demanding the right to breathe. Evangelical Christians obsessed with eschatology and dominionism are taking over the Supreme Court. A crypto-fascist in the White House is already pledging not to accept the election results if he were to lose. And who do we have leading the opposition to this monstrosity-in-chief? What can stand in the way of a complete takeover of the Supreme Court? All we have is Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, who repeatedly begs Republicans to “meet us in the middle.”
Perhaps if JFK were alive, Schumer would be profiled for his courage.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, statues of racists have been pulled down, and institutions have been forced to change their racist names. It is welcoming that Princeton renamed the Woodrow Wilson Public Policy school. But it is time to submit other liberal idols to the same critical re-evaluation. In short, it is time to cancel the Kennedys. We can start with John F. Kennedy, who, as Ed Markey not so subtly pointed out, made us think that people should not even ask what their country could do for them. Because, for an aristocratic family like the Kennedys that feel entitled to Senate seats, you are “not fundamental to the nation’s welfare.” An endless road of compromise, working towards the middle, and getting nowhere – that’s the politics the Kennedy’s inspired, and the politics we need to cancel.
Dudziak, M. L. (2011). Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kennedy, J. F. (1956). Profiles in Courage. New York, NY: Harper.
Pizzigati, S. (2012). The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph Over Plutocracy That Created the American Middle Class 1900-1970. New York, NY: Seven Stories.
James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens. You can check out his ISSUE 1 article here and upcoming articles in our Politics section.