Barack Obama and JFK

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The New York Sun

As Washington gets set for the state of the union speech, the Huffington Post’s senior editor, Howard Fineman, is reporting that President Obama will shed the association many have had of him as a reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Instead, Mr. Fineman reports, Mr. Obama’s aides “are looking toward a different Democratic president as a political template: John F. Kennedy.” This is all the more dramatic as Washington is marking the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration speech, when the newly minted president spoke of the “New Frontier.” Mr. Fineman reports that Mr. Obama will “highlight targeted tax cuts, spending restraint and the need to rebuild our technological and educational base for the long term.”

What caught our eye in the piece was the reference to tax cuts being targeted, because the concept of targeted tax cuts is so opposite of the strategy JFK put in place. Kennedy announced his famous supply-side reform in the summer of 1962. Saying he wanted to avoid another recession, he declared his intention to introduce “a permanent, basic reform and reduction in our rate structure, a creative tax, creating more jobs income, and eventually more revenue.” In his August 1962 speech announcing “an across the board, top to bottom cut in both corporate and personal income taxes.” It would, he said, “include long-needed tax reform that logic and equity demand. . . .Every dollar released from taxation that is spent or invested will help create a new job and a new salary, and these new jobs and new salaries then create other jobs and other salaries and more customers and more growth for an expanding American economy.”

We offer these quotes just to remind of what the real John F. Kennedy was like. He didn’t fool around with the idea of targeted tax cuts, a recipe for political corruption and state management of the economy. He went for permanent, structural, across the board reduction in rates. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan couldn’t have put it much better. It would be wrong to make too much of Kennedy. He had lots of flaws. But it would be even more wrong to put through in his name policies as different from his as those Mr. Obama is contemplating. No doubt critics of the supply side strategy will point out that Kennedy was reducing rates that were at stratospheric levels. But the principle Kennedy followed, and articlulated so well, is what counts.

* * *

While we’re on the subject of Kennedy, feature the report Sunday in the Boston Globe, which gives huge front page display to a story headlined “A dark corner of Camelot.” It discloses something of a tug of war over family secrets stored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. At the center of it are what the Globe describes as “54 crates of records so closely guarded that even the library director is prohibited from taking a peek.” It reports that archivists contend the “trove” contains “diaries, notes, phone logs, messages, trip files, and other documents from Robert F. Kennedy’s service as US attorney general, including details about his roles in the Cuban missile crisis and as coordinator of covert efforts to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro.”

The Globe reports that half a century after the events “a behind-the-scenes tussle continues over the Kennedy family’s refusal to grant permission for researchers to freely review them.” It quotes a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive as saying that the history involved “is immediately relevant to the ongoing debate over US policy toward Cuba.” The family member who controls access, Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, is quoted as denying that access to the papers is closed but insisting that it is his obligation to “grant use responsibly.”

The part of the story that most intrigues us is where the Globe reports: “Some historians attribute the family’s guarded attitude to a desire to protect Robert Kennedy’s image as a champion of civil rights and social programs, and a man who emerged, in the years after his brother’s assassination, as a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. The boxes, they say, may contain evidence of Robert Kennedy the ruthless anticommunist who broke laws in the quest to take out Cuba’s leader, and perhaps other abuses of power.”

The Globe notes that as attorney general, Robert Kennedy “was put in charge of secret efforts to undermine the communist government in Cuba, including Operation Mongoose, the CIA-led effort to assassinate Castro or topple his government.” That is no doubt a dark chapter but not, one can suggest, as dark as the chapter that has unfolded for the Cuban people under the Castro brothers. We mention it not to condone the Kennedy’s methods or judgment but rather to remind of the glint of a certain anti-communism that sparkled now and again when JFK was in power. A little more of that passion, without the lawlessnes, would be nice to see in the current twilight war against a globe girdling foe, particularly in the president who is going to invoke JFK’s memory Tuesday evening.

The New York Sun

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