Conservatives Use JFK Legacy to Praise Bush, Hammer Dems

By Marc Morano | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

(Correction: Fixes spelling of Sorensen)

( - He's been dead for nearly 40 years and served as president for less than three years, but John F. Kennedy's political reputation remains so potent in 2002 that even conservatives are invoking Kennedy's name to try to score political points.

Radio ads, sponsored by the United Seniors Association, are aimed at convincing voters that President George W. Bush's tax cut plan is similar to the tax cuts Kennedy signed into law. The ads also criticize several Senate Democrats who are running for re-election this year.

With Democrats currently in control of the Senate by a single vote, Senators Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Tim Johnson of South Dakota are considered the party's most vulnerable incumbents. All three are targeted in the new radio spots.

The ads feature the 35th president saying, "so long as our national security needs keep rising, an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough jobs or enough profits."

Charles Jarvis, chairman and chief executive of the United Seniors Association, believes it is perfectly appropriate to compare Bush's tax cuts with those pushed through Congress by Kennedy in the early 1960s.

"The ad shows them that a Democrat in the past strongly supported a common sense economic approach which proved to be absolutely accurate," Jarvis said. "It's immensely ironic that John F. Kennedy took stands which the Democratic leadership today is absolutely offended by," Jarvis added.

However, Theodore Sorensen, a former speechwriter for J.F.K., called the comparison between Bush and Kennedy "ludicrous" and said the clip of Kennedy in the ads running in Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota was used "out of context."

"I think it's unfortunate that people who have no direct knowledge of President Kennedy, who never supported his principles, are now taking his words out of context to use for their own partisan purposes that he never would have shared," Sorensen told

"It's just ludicrous that these people are now using his words for totally different purposes," he added.

Sorensen maintains that President Bush's approach to tax cutting differs greatly from the approach used by Kennedy. "Kennedy's tax cut proposal was a well balanced approach because he wanted to close loopholes, Bush wants to open loopholes," Sorensen said.

He also believes Bush's fiscal policies will exacerbate the federal budget deficit. "President Kennedy would never have supported a tax cut that would have tremendously increased the deficit that we have now," Sorensen said.

David Horowitz, a former 1960s radical who turned conservative and wrote the book, "The Kennedys: An American Drama," disagreed, insisting that Kennedy would feel right at home with the Bush administration's policies.

"If [Kennedy] were alive today, the Washington Post would describe him as a right wing ultra-conservative Republican," said Horowitz, pointing to Kennedy's tax cutting economic policy and his staunch anti-communist foreign policy.

The J.F.K. legacy has nothing in common with the Democratic Party as it exists today, Horowitz said. "If you take Kennedy as a benchmark, you can see how far to the left American politics has slid in the last 30-40 years," he added.

But Sorensen pointed to Kennedy's quest to "expand civil rights, expand education, expand health care, fight poverty, increase the minimum wage" as evidence that the late president was no conservative.

Commentators and historians might end up debating Kennedy's politics for decades to come, but his enduring influence on American pop culture and politics is undeniable.

Horowitz sums up his view on the American culture's 40-year obsession with Kennedy by explaining that "the Kennedys had all those kept Harvard historians like [Arthur] Schlesinger, he had a glamour wife, the media loved him and he was martyred. What more could you ask for?"

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said America has elevated Kennedy to the status of "a secular saint."

"He is timeless. He still, even today, comes across as a modern man, highly articulate, cutting a dashing figure on television," Sabato explained.

Sabato believes the enduring fascination with Kennedy stems from the fact that "he died at the peak of power" and tapped into a "national guilt" regarding how America allowed him to be killed.

Michael Barone, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, said the present day use of Kennedy's presidency and image is the result of his "terrific charm" and the Kennedy family acting as the "keepers of their own legend."

"His father was brilliant at creating a lot of the great media handling of the Kennedys while he was alive," stated Barone. He said the family is still shaping the Kennedy image, noting that the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has "put more restrictions on their papers than I think any other president."

Sorensen believes the three most "memorable actions of the 20th century" occurred during Kennedy's short presidency -- space exploration, the prevention of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the advancement of civil rights.

"I think historians will remember him and quote his words for a very long time from now," Sorensen said.

Jarvis, meanwhile, said his radio ads have already made an impact. Campaign workers for Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota "have been stunned by the Kennedy clip and its content. They don't know how to handle it," Jarvis said.

"Kennedy's equation of national defense and security with economic growth and the necessity of tax cuts ... that combination is so much in contrast to too many liberals in this country today," Jarvis added.

A spokeswoman for Wellstone refused to comment about the radio ads. Telephone calls to the offices of Carnahan and Johnson were not returned.

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