“My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Especially this week, we are being reminded of who said that.
But pretend you don’t know who said it and answer this: Are those the words of a conservative? Or a liberal?
Do liberals ask for service above self? Or is that a conservative thing?
Isn’t it liberals who expect the country to help people? Isn’t that something conservatives oppose?
It was John Fitzgerald Kennedy who issued that challenge in 1961 at his inauguration as the 35th president of the United States.
His speech continued: “My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Freedom? Not reliance on government as the giver of all good things?
For weeks now, cable channels have been rolling out and dusting off dozens of “Who Killed Kennedy?” shows. We got to see Oliver Stone’s famous fictionalization one more time.
Kennedy is continuously called a “transformative” president.
But there’s not much discussion of what that means.
So, here goes:
The Irish Catholic war hero, second son of a driven, manipulative and opportunistic father, represented, as it was characterized when he defeated Richard Nixon in 1960, the “passing of the torch to a new generation.” Kennedy was the first president who had not been born in the 1800s, in horse-and-buggy days. He was also at the helm of humanity’s first “superpower,” a nation that had freed the planet from dictatorial tyranny in Europe and Asia, but stood as the only serious threat to expanding communist tyranny.
In white Mississippi, JFK was loathed. The word “liberal” did exist back then and certainly he bore it, at least as it was defined 50 years ago.
But while white Mississippi roiled in disdain for this Harvard elitist who didn’t understand or appreciate “Southern ways” (a euphemism for mistreatment of minorities), the truth is that neither Kennedy, nor his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had social reform high on their agenda. An end to segregated schools had been ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954. The Kennedys were intent on enforcing the law, but only once in a Nixon-Kennedy debate was race even mentioned.
It was on radio that Kennedy pointed out the disparity between opportunities for white people in America and those for Negroes and other minorities. Nixon responded that he was for equality, too, and that was that. (There was a brief furor over a rumored pledge by Nixon to place a “Negro” in his cabinet, but that was squelched.)
After taking office, the administration filed a few racially progressive bills in Congress, but they were going nowhere.
During Kennedy’s 1,063 days in office, he was a fiscal conservative. The federal deficit increased a mere $17 billion, roughly what the government spends in three days today.
The assassination changed everything. Lyndon Baines Johnson, who took the oath as the new president on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, initiated the Great Society programs of the mid 1960s in the name of the slain president. It was those programs, much more than the New Deal 30 years earlier, that changed the role of government, the place of government in the lives of individuals and how newer generations think about government and what it should do.
Some say Kennedy was on this path. Perhaps. But it was Johnson who got it done.
Along the way, too, this pervasive belief that “conservative” equates to “mean, greedy, self-centered” and even “racist” developed. Perhaps that was only natural, given the twin affinities of Southerners for conservatism and “Southern ways.” Today, white conservatives are routinely pigeonholed as racist. Any white fiscal conservative who questions any social program is dismissed as engaging in “hate speech.” Any African-American fiscal conservative is branded as a race traitor.
Despite the fact that whites far outnumber blacks on aid roles, in 2013 the consensus is that all conservatives are racist and all racists are conservative.
Today we define liberals as those who want everybody to have good things. Conservatives are the people who don’t.
Liberals are generous. Conservatives are greedy.
Many long-needed reforms – the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act to name two – are part of the Kennedy legacy.
One not-so-good part has been allowing social goals to trump economic realities. Another is the profound and persistent blurring of what it means to be conservative and what it means to be liberal.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.