JFK's conservatism, an inconvenient fact

As president, JFK chose as Treasury secretary a Republican Wall Street banker, C. Douglas Dillon, who 30 years after the assassination remembered Kennedy as “financially conservative.” Kennedy’s fiscal policy provided an example and ample rhetoric for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts. Kennedy endorsed “a creative tax cut creating more jobs and income and eventually more revenue.” In December 1962, he said:

“The federal government’s most useful role is . . . to expand the incentives and opportunities for private expenditures. . . . [I]t is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.”

John Kenneth Galbraith — Harvard economist, liberal polemicist and Kennedy’s ambassador to India — called this “the most Republican speech since McKinley.” It was one of many. On the day he was killed, Kennedy was being driven to the Dallas Trade Mart to propose “cutting personal and corporate income taxes.” Kennedy changed less during his life than liberalism did after his death.

The Kennedy library here where he lived draws substantially fewer visitors than does Dallas’s Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, where he was murdered. This is emblematic of a melancholy fact: How he died looms larger in the nation’s mind than how he lived.