In a wide-ranging interview with Blaze Books in connection with his newest title, JFK, Conservative, Ira Stoll provided his insights on JFK's political ideology, religiosity, foreign policy views and a whole host of other topics. Below is Part I of our interview, conducted via email. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
What inspired you to write this book?
Stoll: I grew up in Massachusetts and went to Harvard, and so it was hard to avoid the Kennedys. When the JFK Presidential Library opened in Boston, I went with my parents, with my high school, with my Boy Scout troop. As I got older, I heard my conservative friends dismissing all Kennedys as a bunch of drinkers and philanderers, and I heard my liberal friends admiring JFK for what I thought were the wrong reasons. So I wrote this book to set both the conservatives and the liberals straight and to restore an accurate picture of Kennedy.
Why should skeptical conservatives read this book?
Stoll: This book is the antidote to the false story put out by liberal Kennedy historians and journalists after the president’s death that Kennedy was a liberal. If you want to understand tax cuts and economic growth and peace through strength, you’ve got to understand Kennedy. Even if you think you don’t like JFK, you should buy and read this book — it may well change your mind. It explains why President Ronald Reagan talked about Kennedy as his inspiration for his tax cuts and military buildup. The only way to correct the distortions put out by the liberal historians in their bestselling JFK books — distortions I point out in my book — is to make this book a bestseller.
[sharequote align="center"]He cut taxes, built up the military, was tough on communists, and was attacked by...left-wingers[/sharequote]
What was the most shocking piece of information you found while researching JFK?
Stoll: I had a general idea that Kennedy was an anticommunist and a tax cutter, but I hadn’t realized how conservative he was on some other issues. He was for the death penalty. He appointed the Supreme Court justice who wrote the dissent in the Roe v. Wade abortion case. He campaigned against corrupt labor unions. He worried about the way welfare destroyed families. He gave speeches expressing alarm at the growing power and size of the federal government and warning about the dangers or atheism and cynical intellectuals.
Make your hard sell in 50 words or less as to why JFK was a conservative.
Stoll: He cut taxes, built up the military, was tough on communists, and was attacked by the left-wingers in the press, in Europe, and on college campuses for doing all these things. He believed in a God who gives people rights that the state can’t take away.
[sharequote align="center"]The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God[/sharequote]
In your findings did JFK give conservative speeches to conservative audiences and liberal speeches to liberal audiences?
Stoll: He gave conservative speeches to all sorts of audiences. His best-known speech — the 1960 inaugural address — was a conservative speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you…” — compare that to the modern Democratic Party, which is all about giving people free or subsidized things, whether it is cellphones, health insurance, Pell Grants, or food stamps. “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” And “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” This wasn’t just a conservative audience — the entire country, and the entire world, was watching. It was the inaugural address.
[sharequote align="center"]Galbraith: The president told me to shut up about my opposition to tax cuts.[/sharequote]
Is there one anecdote in particular that best proves his conservatism – for example in which even if politically damaging he took a conservative stance?
Stoll: My favorite anecdote is the one where John Kenneth Galbraith, the Keynesian Harvard economics professor who was Kennedy’s ambassador to India, flew back to the U.S. to try to talk Kennedy out of cutting taxes. Galbraith favored more government spending on jobs programs and public works like roads and bridges instead (sound familiar?). Galbraith went back to the White House Mess after meeting with the president and told his fellow economists, “you’ve won. The president told me to shut up about my opposition to tax cuts.”
In your opinion is JFK only a conservative by today’s standards, or even by those of the 1960s?
Stoll: The book argues that Kennedy was a conservative both by today’s standard and by the standards of his time. Some evidence: Eleanor Roosevelt was asked in a December 1958 television interview what she would do if she had to chose between a “conservative Democrat like Kennedy and a liberal Republican [like] Rockefeller.” The Washington columnist Joseph Alsop spoke in 1964 about Kennedy’s “conservative fiscal-economic policy.” Richard Nixon wrote in his 1978 memoir that during the 1960 presidential debate, “Kennedy conveyed the image — to 60 million people — that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was.”
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Ira Stoll in which we talk about Kennedy's relationship with Senator Joseph McCarthy, religiosity and whether or not he paved the way for LBJ's "Great Society" programs.