How the Left Spun the Kennedy Myth

JFK was one of America’s most liberal presidents, right? Wrong. Former aides Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Ted Sorensen rewrote history to make him more liberal than he really was.

Ernie Sisto/The New York Times via Redux

President Kennedy was a tax-cutting Cold Warrior who was tough on unions (“the cancer of labor racketeering”), slow on civil rights legislation, and called abortion “repugnant.”

So how in the world did he wind up as an icon of liberalism?

The matter puzzled even some of JFK’s former aides: Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen acknowledged at one event, “Kennedy was a fiscal conservative. Most of us and the press and historians have, for one reason or another, treated Kennedy as being much more liberal than he so regarded himself at the time.”

One answer is that immediately after Kennedy’s assassination, liberal authors began sculpting the story. The first culprit was Theodore White, who interviewed Jacqueline Kennedy at Hyannis Port on November 29, 1963, for Life magazine.

White dictated his account of the interview by phone while Life was being held open after its deadline at a cost of $30,000 an hour in printing plant overtime. The resulting article, he conceded in his 1978 memoir, “heavily edited her.” Among the lines that White cut in his heavy editing was this one from Jacqueline Kennedy: “All I wanted was his name on just that one booster, the one that would put us ahead of the Russians.” The line suggests that even in November 1963, after Kennedy’s death, his widow wanted JFK’s legacy not to be some kind of peaceful cooperation with the Russians on the space program, but beating them.

Sorensen himself, in his 1965 book Kennedy, rewrote the president’s story in a way consonant with Sorensen’s own dovish views and with the views of Sorensen’s peace-activist father, to whom the book is dedicated.

He did so by altering the chronology of events. In real life, Kennedy gave a somewhat conciliatory speech at American University on June 10, 1963, making the point that Americans and Russians “all breath the same air.” On June 26, however, Kennedy visited Berlin and gave a contrasting and derisory message: “There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.” In the Sorensen book, the story is altered, and the Berlin speech is mentioned much earlier in the book than the American University speech, which comes in a chapter titled “The Strategy of Peace.”

The non-chronological telling fits the narrative that, as Sorensen put it later, Kennedy “started from his father’s house as a conservative” and “gradually revised his priorities and principles, accommodating the more liberal positions I was urging upon him.” That describes Sorensen as the one with consistent principles and Kennedy as the malleable one, and it describes Sorensen as, in at least one important way, the more powerful partner in the relationship. Such a portrayal may have been flattering to Sorensen, or somehow psychologically soothing to the former aide. Alas, Kennedy wasn’t around to set the record straight.

The third writer-mythmaker was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the historian and Kennedy administration White House aide. Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, later reported that the president’s “relationship with Schlesinger was never that close….The President understood that he supported him only because he felt that, as President, Kennedy was in the best position to further his [Schlesinger’s] own liberal ideas. He knew that Schlesinger would have preferred to be working for ‘President’ Adlai Stevenson.”

When Schlesinger’s book on the Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days, came out in 1965, it took the same approach Sorensen did, reversing the actual chronology of the Berlin and American University speeches. The Berlin speech appears on pages 884 and 885 of A Thousand Days; the American University speech and the reaction to it appears on pages 900 to 905, in a chapter titled “The Pursuit of Peace.” With Schlesinger as with Sorensen, reversing the order of the two speeches is a specious way of advancing the liberal interpretive line being put forth by the presidential aides-turned authors. Schlesinger wrote of Kennedy that, “For two and a half years he had quietly striven to free his countrymen from the clichés of the cold war…The American University speech was the climax of a long campaign.”

Both Sorensen and Schlesinger, while quoting extensively from the American University speech in their books, entirely excised its two most hawkish lines, the ones about how “As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity,” and, “The Communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today.”

Neither White nor Sorensen nor Schlesinger deserve blanket condemnations. Their writings are valuable sources on many Kennedy-related topics. Schlesinger’s in particular is beautifully written, particularly the opening and closing passages. One can nonetheless understand at least one possible reason that Jacqueline Kennedy, in September 1966, was reportedly “deeply critical of all books about her husband, even Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days.” They portrayed him, inaccurately, as more left-wing than he really was.