Dowling’s Dilemma: Would JFK be tagged a ‘conservative Republican’ today?

OKLAHOMA CITY – Paul Dowling runs the website “Eagle Rising.”

Based on its content, I doubt he shares all of my worldview. However, he clearly shares some of it.

Dowling posted a wonderfully provocative commentary this past week, entitled “Is President Kennedy now a conservative Republican?” 

This is not an entirely new subject, but Dowling has posed the question at a most opportune moment. Giving him full credit for posing the question, my own reflections in this matter, employing some of his quotes, follow.

Long before becoming one of the most controversial conservatives around, Newt Gingrich had a similar idea.

Beginning in 1983, then-U.S. Rep. Gingrich, R-Georgia, hosted a gathering called the “Conservative Opportunity Society.” It included both members of Congress, a handful of reporters and writers, and some idealistic young conservatives who wanted to take Ronald Reagan’s ideas to the next level.

I was one of those younger people.

One of the regulars was Jack Kemp, who was considered “squishy” on labor union issues, perhaps because he had a large number of dues-paid union members in congressional districts around Buffalo, New York, which he represented from 1971-1987.

Regardless of that, Gingrich and Kemp were both perpetual fonts on creative policy ideas, many of them rooted in the Kennedy tradition.

Gingrich and Kemp both revered our 35th president, the child of privilege from Massachusetts who appealed to millions of Americans who did not have economic resources, but aspired to be part of the American dream.

John Kennedy’s early 1960’s income tax cut was, he memorably said, designed to prove that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” Two decades later, President Ronald Reagan repeatedly pointed to JFK’s income tax cut rhetoric to build support for the three-year phased in reduction income tax cuts that defined his first term in office.

JFK’s “conservatism” – or whatever you wish to call it – didn’t start or end with economic issues.

How’s this for starters:

“By calling attention to ‘a well regulated militia’, the ‘security’ of the nation, and the right of each citizen ‘to keep and bear arms’, our Founding Fathers recognized the essentially civilian nature of our economy.

“Although it is extremely unlikely that the fears of governmental tyranny which gave rise to the Second Amendment will ever be a major danger to our nation, the Amendment still remains an important declaration of our basic civilian-military relationships, in which every citizen must be ready to participate in the defense of his country.

“For that reason, I believe the Second Amendment will always be important.” 

As for national security, he said more than once, “It is an unfortunate fact that we can only have peace by preparing for war.” 

George Washington probably said that first – but, then again, our first president said a lot of things first.

I wonder what the prince of Camelot would say about the nuclear weapons deal with Iran. I know what he said about the smallest nation in the Middle East, in a 1960’s speech to the Zionists of American Convention:

“Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”  

Then, there are his comments concerning the role of God – not religious belief in general, but the Almighty in particular – in the American experiment:

“[T]he 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.”

The greatest presidential rhetorician between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan also said this: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish . . . where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be, again, a Jew — or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.” 

Reading such words, who can possibly believe JFK would be comfortable with contemporary analysts or jurists dismissive of the sincerely held beliefs of millions of American Christians?

Kennedy believed in equality of opportunity as a noble goal, not in equality of result: “This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened. . . . In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated.”
I’ve always been drawn to both the substance and the language of the Kennedy presidency, as I was to Reagan’s.

Dowling began his recent compilation of JFK’s greatest hits with one of the best paragraphs ever uttered by an American chief executive. I will close with it, presenting to Democrats and others what might be deemed “Dowling’s dilemma.”

Kennedy repeatedly employed in speeches and writings an analogy to Americans as watchmen on the walls of the holy city – Sentinels, if you will – for themselves, and for the world.

He said:

“We in this country . . . are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility . . . and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

“That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ ”
In love, not in anger, an observation: That was then. This is now.

Who is keeping our city, our Republic, in 2015?