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Why Removing Historical Monuments is a Bad Idea

Why Removing Historical Monuments is a Bad Idea

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

While most Americans watch helplessly, our stateside Taliban vandalizes and removes long-standing public monuments. As some commentators point out, this destruction weakens our consciousness of history, including history’s darker side.

Even more importantly, however, erasing monuments of once-revered figures upsets an unspoken, but long-prevailing, consensus governing our decisions of whom to commemorate.  The consensus renders the commemoration process more meaningful and less political than it otherwise would be.

The standard traditionally applied is as follows: When deciding whom to commemorate—by statues, place names, monuments, holidays, currency, or coins—we select individuals who performed extraordinary feats that, on balance, made the world a better place. We disregard or discount those faults common to the individual’s time and place. We do not erect monuments to people who performed extraordinary feats that were unquestionably evil, even if their characters included some virtuous traits. Thus, George Washington is memorialized in statues and place names, although he held slaves. Adolph Hitler gets none, although he was kind to dogs.

George Washington is one example of the traditional standard in action. Other examples are the decisions to name towns in New York State, Illinois, and Indiana after the Roman consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was a great orator, an outstanding lawyer, a spokesman for balanced government, and the single person most responsible for transmitting the Greek philosophical tradition to Western Europe. It does not disqualify him that he selected a husband for his daughter rather than allowing her to select one for herself. Parental selection of spouses is anathema today, but in Cicero’s society, “everybody did it.”

Stupendous vision, energy, competence, and courage distinguished Christopher Columbus from others of his generation. His explorations united a world previously divided by hemispheres. His disreputable actions reflected attitudes and practices common to his society. Thus, we honor Columbus by monuments, place names, and a federal holiday.

Our domestic Taliban has made Robert E. Lee a target, allegedly because he held slaves and fought for his home state rather than the nation. But so did tens of thousands of others similarly situated. Lee was distinguished from his contemporaries by an exemplary career, both in the U.S. and Confederate armies, of competence and honor. In later years, Lee also distinguished himself as an educator: As president of the institution that is now Washington and Lee University, he was largely responsible for fashioning the modern college honor code.

There are at least two reasons for not permitting contemporaneous vices to disqualify historical figures from favorable commemoration.  First, virtually everyone acts in ways consistent with contemporaneous social norms—norms of which later generations may disapprove. Common faults are, by definition, common. If we disqualified all figures because we now reject their society’s practices, we would commemorate few people indeed, and we would deprive ourselves of many sources of inspiration.

Second, because almost everyone conforms in most respects to prevailing social practices, disqualification for such conduct is necessarily arbitrary and driven more by politics than by merit. The fact that a particular vice prevailed in a person’s place and time becomes an excuse for stripping recognition from people whose lives contradict the propaganda of those in power. Today “progressives” vandalize statues of Columbus and Lee, allegedly because of actions motivated by racism. Tomorrow a “white nationalist” majority may uproot monuments to Martin Luther King, allegedly because of his adulteries and other indiscretions. Or a religiously-conservative majority may blacklist outstanding women who in private life opted for legal abortions.

Admittedly, the traditional consensus is not an infallible guide to deciding whom to commemorate. For one thing, it can be a close question whether a person’s extraordinary feats made the world a better place: Franklin D. Roosevelt is widely commemorated, even though scholars still argue over whether his leadership during the Great Depression actually improved American life. Politics plays a role in answering close questions.

In some cases, moreover, politics induces decision makers to ignore the traditional standards. It is hard to explain on other than political grounds why so many more monuments and places are dedicated to John F. Kennedy than to much better presidents.

But the traditional standard does help minimize political manipulation of history. Perhaps that is precisely why the standard is flouted by those who want to politicize everything.


Ranking the Presidents Using CONSTITUTIONAL Factors Rather than Liberal Politics

Ranking the Presidents Using CONSTITUTIONAL Factors Rather than Liberal Politics

This article was first published by CNSNews.

In an earlier post, I pointed out that the usual academic rankings of presidents are flawed. They are flawed because they rely on criteria not in the Constitution’s job description for the president.

As a result, academic rankings consistently overrate liberal activist presidents and underrate those who conscientiously focus on their constitutional responsibilities.

The Constitution lists those responsibilities, and the prior post reproduced that list. It includes such duties as “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” conduct foreign policy and military affairs, and “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

By contrast, most lists rank presidents on such factors as whether they persuaded Congress to create more programs, whether they changed the country, and whether they “made a difference.” None of these criteria appear in the Constitution.

A good example of the results appear this Washington Post article. It places every modern liberal activist president among the top twenty: Franklin Roosevelt (3rd, after Lincoln and Washington), Theodore Roosevelt (4th), Truman (6th), Clinton (8th), Wilson (10th), Johnson (12th), Kennedy (14th), and Obama (18th). One guesses that Carter is not among the top 20 because he did some conservative things, such as promote deregulation and begin a military buildup after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

If one applies the Constitution’s criteria—the real job description—these rankings change markedly. All the favorite liberal presidents  would lose points for their failure to respect the Constitution’s limits on federal power. The Roosevelts, Johnson, and Obama were particularly notorious in this regard.

Similarly, enforcing the laws is another of the president’s core duties, but Clinton committed perjury while in office, and political concerns corrupted law enforcement under several liberal favorites.

Two other core responsibilities are serving as commander-in-chief of the military and carrying out foreign policy. Franklin Roosevelt merits respect for his World War II leadership, but both his foreign policy record and that of Truman are marred by their over-accommodation of Stalin. Johnson’s diplomatic and military efforts in Vietnam fell short by any standards. It is difficult to figure out what Clinton did in foreign policy to merit inclusion in the top 20. Obama’s foreign policy seems to have collapsed on all fronts.

Liberal academics are quick to condemn Nixon for personal failings that infected policy, but several favorite liberal presidents also had failings that impaired their domestic and foreign policy records. Among them were Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton.

Other presidents should, by the Constitution’s criteria, be ranked much higher than they usually are—although not necessarily in the top 20. They concentrated on doing their job and doing it well. They did so not for personal glory, but so Americans could live their lives and control their own destinies. Some of these underestimated presidents include::

* James Madison, for respecting the Constitution to a degree almost unmatched among wartime presidents.
* James Polk, notable for his foreign policy and military achievements.
* Millard Fillmore—who certainly was not in the top 20, but who enforced even laws he disagreed with, promoted international trade, restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, and generally pursued a policy of reconciliation in times of great division.
* Calvin Coolidge, for honest law enforcement, competent (if somewhat romantic) foreign policy, frugal administration, and respect for constitutional limits.
* Ronald Reagan, for his policy recommendations, particularly in the areas of tax and regulation, and an outstandingly successful foreign policy.

* Grover Cleveland certainly belongs in the top 20. As points out, he based political appointments on merit rather than party affiliation, tried to reduce government spending, was a noninterventionist in foreign policy, sought to lower protective tariffs, and was “an honest and hard-working president.” also tells us that “Cleveland . . . is criticized for being unimaginative and having no overarching vision for American society” and was “opposed to using legislation to bring about social change.” More reasons, in my view, for including him in the top 20.

There are a few presidents we can agree were very good or very bad. Washington and Lincoln deserve top marks—not for liberal activism, but for their successful efforts to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” during very difficult times. James Buchanan belongs near the bottom for his failure to do so.

One last point: Sometimes a president dies at a time opportune for his reputation. Kennedy’s death certainly prevented further demonstration of his reckless incompetence. And if Lincoln had lived, liberal academics probably would be castigating him today for the same policies of reconciliation for which some now attack his successor, Andrew Johnson.

John F. Kennedy, RIP

John F. Kennedy, RIP

2013-0414 RGN History tends to correct the errors of contemporaneous perceptions, and on the 50th anniversary of his assassination there were far fewer mentions than in prior years about President Kennedy’s “greatness.”

I was coming of age when President Kennedy was shot, and well remember the shock, first in my high school study hall and next in Spanish class. But by the time of the tragedy I already knew too much about his administration, and in subsequent decades other Americans and I were to learn much more that we really did not want to know.

A useful corrective to Kennedy hagiography is the section on his administration in Paul Johnson’s History of the American People.  (Caveat: Johnson sometimes makes factual errors as a historian, but not on this topic.) Johnson ranks Kennedy among the worst Presidents, somewhat below President Warren Harding in his revisionist view. But let Mr. Johnson speak for his eloquent self. I’ll review what I already knew at age 15 and also some of what we all have learned since.

Neither I nor anyone else except the admiring Washington press corps knew that this President was in some ways a modern-day Emperor Commodus—a handsome young man of promise who wasted enormous amounts of irreplaceable time on adulterous affairs rather than attending to his official responsibilities. Nor was he particularly discrete about whom he bedded: Years later, the nation was shocked to learn that he had been sharing a mistress with a Mafia don. All this was fun for him, of course, but one wonders what the nation gained—or rather lost—from it.

1966-04 SNBeing from a medical family, I already was aware that Kennedy was promoting enormous new federal involvement in the American health care system, and that he was far understating the actual cost. Sydney Natelson (1911-2007), my father, was a physician and a close observer of national politics. (He is pictured to the left at home in 1966.) He noted that Kennedy’s Medicare proposal was partly duplicative of existing state programs, but was structured in a way that would undermine the traditional doctor/patient relationship and turn independent physicians into bureaucrats. My father also predicted it would raise the deficit. No one, except maybe the Kennedy aides who knew the real numbers, understood that Medicare also would help render health care unaffordable for the middle class, and eventually threaten the nation with bankruptcy.

Kennedy is remembered for the “Kennedy round” of income tax cuts, a Keynesian exercise designed as “stimulus,” and later pointed to as a model by Republicans as well. Its flaws were that without spending reductions, the tax cuts added to the deficit and any stimulus effect soon expired, being replaced with inflation and/or renewed sluggishness. Kennedy’s Harvard boys (unlike Obama’s Harvard boys and girls) understood that lower tax rates encourage enterprise, but they thought government spending does also. Actually, government spending ultimately discourages enterprise by inefficient use of valuable resources, creating incentives not to be productive, and feeding the corps of regulators and dependents that weaken the private sector.

In foreign affairs, Kennedy cultivated an image of toughness, but the record was otherwise. During his 1960 campaign, he argued that the Eisenhower administration had allowed the U.S. to lag behind the USSR in missiles (the “missile gap”). This turned out to be fiction. While President, Kennedy authorized a coup d’etat against the elected president of South Vietnam, thereby eliminating the only leader with a hope of handling the Communist Viet Cong. The result was a much wider war and much deeper American involvement.

Then there was Cuba: In 1961, over the objections of advisors such as Commander of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke, Kennedy deserted at the Bay of Pigs an army of Cuban freedom fighters the U.S. had trained and delivered. The year  after the ensuing massacre, Kennedy’s administration repeatedly denied reliable reports that the Soviets were placing inter-continental ballistic missiles in Cuba. Kennedy changed his mind a few days before the mid-term congressional elections, a timing that helped contain Democrat losses. In a dramatic address (which I remember watching), Kennedy outlined a plan to force those missiles out. This confrontation took us to the edge of World War III, but the ultimate outcome was a fizzle. In exchange for unverified removal of the missiles, Kennedy made a series of unpublicized concessions to the Soviets. Among them: The U.S. was to remove missiles from NATO ally Turkey, and  Castro was to remain in power indefinitely. Castro thereby was left in place to promote international discord for another 40 years; and the Cuban people even now remain locked in the prison he constructed.

Then there were the widespread wiretapping and other civil liberties violations,  Kennedy’s relative inability to deal with Congress, and so forth.

In recent days, there has been some speculation about what might have happened if Kennedy had lived. These speculations take for granted that he would have won a second term. But this is an inadmissible assumption: Just before his death, Kennedy’s re-election was far from assured. It could have been forestalled completely by one or two more missteps of the kind he had already made.

A more interesting topic for speculation is what might have happened if the votes had been counted honestly in Kennedy’s first election—and if Vice-President Nixon had been as persistent in demanding a recount in 1960 as Vice-President Gore was to be in 2000. There have been widespread claims of theft in several closely-contested American presidential contests (1824, 1876, 2000).  The election of 1960, however, was the most likely to have been stolen. The vote counting in both Illinois and Texas was deeply compromised (this is no longer a matter of dispute), and the switch of both states’ electoral votes would have prevented Kennedy from becoming President.

Richard Nixon was then less jaded than he later became, and although young, was older than Kennedy and a good deal more diligent and experienced. His presidency could hardly have been worse than Kennedy’s, and might have been a good deal better. At least we might not today be at the edge of fiscal ruin.