The Rise and Fall of Liberalism

Uploaded by HooverInstitution on 24.09.2008

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. James Piereson is the
director of the Manhattan Institute Center for the American University and president
of the William E. Simon Foundation. A former political science professor, Jim's latest
book is Camelot and The Cultural Revolution; How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered
American Liberalism. Jim, welcome, to Uncommon Knowledge.
James Piereson: Happy to be here Peter, thank you.
Peter Robinson: A tail of two liberalisms. I quote you to yourself, from the first page
of the first chapter of the book. Quote, as the 1960's began, liberalism was without doubt
the single most creative and vital force in American politics. This is written by a man
who's dedicated, as far as I know, nearly all his professional endeavors to the advancement
of conservatism in America. By the end of the decade, to continue the quotation, however,
liberal doctrine was in disarray with many of its central assumptions broken by the experience
of the preceding years, it is still trying to recover. How is the liberalism of 1960
different from the liberalism of the decade later, 1970?
James Piereson: They, Peter, they, I meant by that that in 1960, when John F. Kennedy
came in to office, liberalism inherited a great deal of momentum from FDR and the New
Deal. They believed that the future was working in the direction of more programs and an agenda
that had been established by the New Deal. With federal intervention in the economy designed
to protect our, to perfect our democracy. The New Deal liberals were optimistic about
the future.
Peter Robinson: With reason.
James Piereson: That's...
Peter Robinson: As far as they understood it, they had beat the Great Depression. Beat
Adolph Hitler. Reignited the economy of the 1950's, and elected John F. Kennedy.
James Piereson: Absolutely true. They, they had a record of achievement at their backs
that they thought they could project into the future. There's great faith in the ability
of the federal government to do many of these things because, of course, they had, as you
said led us out of the depression, defeated Adolph Hitler, invented the Atomic Bomb. In
the 1950's confronted the Soviet Union. Built a federal highway system. We’re in the process
of sending men in to space. There is nothing we couldn't accomplish.
Peter Robinson: You make this sound pretty good Jim. My fellow conservative.
James Piereson: Yes indeed.
Peter Robinson: In 1960, let me point, John F. Kennedy ran to the right of Richard Nixon
on defense. And not long after he was elected, he set to work on, and enacted before his
death, a massive...
James Piereson: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Income tax cut.
James Piereson: Yes.
Peter Robinson: In 1960, would you have voted for John Kennedy over Richard Nixon?
James Piereson: Well, I was, I was in school at the time. And I remember my parents were
very much for Kennedy. And I probably would have voted for Kennedy. You know a lot of
conservatives look back on Kennedy and say that...
Peter Robinson: Pretty good.
James Piereson: His views in 1960 are not all that far from their views today.
Peter Robinson: All Right.
James Piereson: But let me just continue the thought. But the liberalism that came out
of the New Deal was a very optimistic liberalism about the future, and about America's role
in the world. And the role of the federal government and perfecting our democracy. Kennedy
constantly talked about the future. And the future is going to be brighter than the past.
What happened in the 1960's was that that assumption of American progress among the
liberals is shattered. The belief in American benevolence, of America's role in the world.
Of the American past. All these were called into question by the liberals in the 1960's.
Peter Robinson: Two quotations. John Fitzgerald Kennedy 1961, quote, Let every nation know
whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet
any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success
of liberty, close quote. President James Earl Carter, 1977. For too many years we've been
willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principals and tactics of our adversaries,
but we are now free, finally free of that inordinate fear of Communism. Which once led
us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear, close quote. Now, the usual explanation
for this sea change, you can just hear it in tone apart from one is confident. That
one is the sound of a trumpet, and the other is, at best a woodwind I think. The cultural
revolution of the 60's, the war in Vietnam, your explanation is...
James Piereson: Well, I suggest that the assassination of President Kennedy, and the way it was interpreted
by liberals in American life, played a great role in the unwinding of liberalism in the
Peter Robinson: All right.
James Piereson: And in marking in that change from JFK to James Earl Carter.
Peter Robinson: The assassination itself. On November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy
is shot and killed in the streets of Dallas. From Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,
quote. When word spread on the afternoon of November 22nd that the President had been
shot, the immediate and understandable reaction was that the assassin must be a right-wing
extremist. An anti-communist perhaps, or a white supremacist. But in any case a right-wing
nut. Why was that the understandable reaction?
James Piereson: Peter the reason for that was that from the early 50's, when Senator
McCarthy came on the scene, into the early 1960's with the John Burg Society and then
with a great deal of violence against civil rights workers in the south, including assassinations
and all sorts of other things. The general assumption in American life was that violence
and irrationality comes from the right. And that if something like this is going to happen,
it has to be one of the so-called hate groups. It has to arise from someone opposed to civil
rights. A racist. Or perhaps an anti-communist. During 19, during the course of 1963, there
were several such events emanating from the right. Medgar Evers a civil rights activist
was assassinated by the...
Peter Robinson: By the Klan.
James Piereson: Ku Klux Klan.
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: In June of 1963, Kennedy invited the family to the White House in a show of
support. In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech on the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That summer the nation was shocked to see film clips of
police in Birmingham, Alabama using fire hoses and police dogs to scatter civil rights demonstrators.
In September of 1963, the Klan blew up a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young
black girls. In October of 1963, Adlai Stevenson, the U.N. Ambassador, ventured to Dallas to
give a speech about the U.N., and was met by anti-communist demonstrators who heckled
him, hit him over the head with a cardboard placard as he made his way to the car and
spat upon him. When Stephenson came back to Washington, he cautioned President Kennedy
and his staff not to go to Dallas. He said there is a spirit of madness that had overtaken
the city of Dallas. So, events had been teed up for a period of time to suggest that if
there was violence in American life, it would come from the right.
Peter Robinson: Come from the right.
James Piereson: Not from the left.
Peter Robinson: Now let's, let's just take on the question of Lee Harvey Oswald, briefly
because I don't believe, as best I can make it out, you don't give--in your book, certainly
you do not give the conspiracy theory, theories, the time of day really. As far as you're concerned,
who killed John Kennedy?
James Piereson: Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy certainly. And he probably did so without
assistance from anyone.
Peter Robinson: All right. Now, again to quote from Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,
quote, If Lee Harvey Oswald had indeed shot President Kennedy, then it would, this is
the heart of your thesis, really Jim. Then it would be difficult to escape the logical
implications of that premise. President Kennedy was a victim of the Cold War, close quote.
Explain that assertion.
James Piereson: Well, we may be getting ahead of the story. But as I write in the book,
the interpretation of Kennedy's death was that Kennedy was a victim of hate and prejudice.
That was what everyone said. And we can get into that a little bit. So the idea was that
Kennedy in the terms of the interpretation that he was a victim of domestic forces. But,
if in fact, he was shot by Oswald, a dedicated communist. And not just a communist. A man
who had defected to the Soviet Union. And had done many other things which we can also
get into to aid the communist cause. Then it was planned that Oswald's motives were
linked to the Cold War. That he assassinated Kennedy for reasons not having to do with
our domestic politics, but to stop Kennedy's Cold War policies.
Peter Robinson: The expectation was that if anybody shot a president, it would be a right-wing
nut who did so. And instead, it was a communist who was so dedicated to communists that he
had for a time defected to the Soviet Union. Married a Russian. Got sick of the Soviet
Union, why? The evidence suggests because the Soviet Union was insufficiently communist
for him. Is that right?
James Piereson: The interpretation that he was bored. It wasn't really a revolutionary
society. He thought...
Peter Robinson: He preferred Castro and Che Guevara.
James Piereson: Well he, he went to the Soviet Union because he thought it was a revolutionary
society. And when he got there, he found that it was really a boring status quo bureaucratic
country. And he became fascinated with the third world revolutionaries, like Castro,
Ho Chi Min, Mau and that group.
Peter Robinson: I just want to, I want to pin down, it seems to me there's a weak form
and a strong form of your argument. And the weak form is, whatever else we know about
Lee Harvey Oswald, we know that he was not a right-wing nut.
James Piereson: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: That's the weak form. The strong form is, what we know about Lee Harvey
Oswald is that he assassinated John Fitzgerald Kennedy for ideological reasons. And that,
requires the hard work of adducing evidence about what was very likely to have been in
Oswald's mind at the time. Do we know, for example, you say in your book that, you suggest
that he may have been, in one way or another, seeking retribution for the Kennedy brothers'
attempts to assassinate Castro? Do we know that? To what extent... Where do you fall,
after writing the book, after pondering it, between these arguments? The weak argument
and the, the weak form and the strong form?
James Piereson: Well I, I lean to the strong form as you put it. That Oswald's motive in
shooting President Kennedy was to interrupt the Kennedy administration's efforts, either
to overthrow or to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba. That was probably why he acted as
he did.
Peter Robinson: Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, and to the presidency
in 1860. John Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946 and to the presidency in 1960. Two
men, exactly a century apart. What did the Lincoln presidency mean to liberals in 1960?
James Piereson: Well, that's really a good question. I, I, I have a chapter on Abraham
Lincoln because when Kennedy was shot, Mrs. Kennedy gave instructions to aides to model
the funeral ceremonies...
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: On Lincoln. And one of the reasons for this was to suggest that Kennedy,
like Lincoln, had been a martyr to the cause of equal rights.
Peter Robinson: You write, the attempt to cast Kennedy as a martyr alongside Lincoln,
added even more confusion to an already confused event. Explain why that was a confusion. Why
wasn't John Kennedy a martyr?
James Piereson: Well, John Kennedy is a right, was a martyr to the Cold War. But he was not
a martyr to the Civil Rights Movement. He could only be a martyr to the Civil Rights
Movement if the assassin was motivated by issues arising from civil rights, which was
not the case. Oswald was not a bigot. People said he was a bigot, that Kennedy was killed
because of bigotry and prejudice. Oswald was not that at all. Oswald was for civil rights.
Oswald was a communist. So that, from the standpoint of 1960 of course, the Civil Rights
Movement represented a kind of a second reconstruction as it was called. We are now revisiting all
the issues...
Peter Robinson: Finishing the great- unfinished work of Abraham Lincoln.
James Piereson: Absolutely. So, and of course both to, though Lincoln was the founder of
the Republican Party, to liberals and advocates of civil rights, Lincoln was in that pantheon
along with FDR as one of the heroes of, of liberalism in American democracy. So, there
was definitely an attempt to place Kennedy in the Lincoln tradition when he was killed.
I say that added confusion to the event because, as I say, Kennedy and all the facts surrounding
Kennedy's assassination suggest that he was, he was assassinated for reasons linked to
foreign policy and the Cold War, not the civil rights.
Peter Robinson: Now, you quote Mrs. Kennedy as saying, quote, He didn't even have the
satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist,
close quote. That's Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy. Why, why did she think of the communists of,
of being silly. You make the case. He was killed by a communist. He was a martyr to
the Cold War. If we know anything about John Kennedy, one thing he took seriously in his
life, what we now know is that he was an ironist. He didn't take the vows of his church particularly
seriously. He misbehaved. But one thing he took seriously, was the Cold War. He wanted
to stand up to the Soviets and he wanted, in one way or another, to win. In the Cuban
missile crisis, we now think of his as very cool and calm and collected. He was but at
every step of the way he was utterly firm. He did put down and place an embargo on Cuba.
He did back Bolshevik down. Why was it insufficient to his own people, the liberals in America
to think of him as a martyr to the Cold War? Why did they have to create what was, what
was--if it's not a fiction then it certainly doesn't comport with the facts of the case.
James Piereson: Yes, when the, this is a very good question. At this time, many liberals
were beginning to believe that the Cold War was a diversion from the real problem of our
society. Civil rights being one, and poverty being another. John F. Kennedy didn't believe
that. John F. Kennedy was devoted to fighting the Cold War. And I think you're right. I
think John F. Kennedy was thinking how can we win the Cold War. And he placed his immense
rhetorical gifts at the service of fighting this battle. You quoted from his first inaugural
address, which was a very eloquent plea to the American people and the world...
Peter Robinson: And-
James Piereson: And to stand up for freedom.
Peter Robinson: As tough as it could have been.
James Piereson: Absolutely he saw that quotation that you just sited, that sounds like George
W. Bush today. But this was a view that liberals, more or less abandoned by the end of the 1960's
I would say. And they, many were beginning to move in this direction, which suggested
that we were placing too much attention on the Cold War. We should begin to work on domestic
issues. And one of the other things that comes out of the 1960's is this idea that the emphasis
on economic growth and national security is far too narrow for the liberal agenda. The
liberal agenda ought to be directed at elevating the quality of life. And at focusing on cultural
Peter Robinson: Let's turn now to what the assassination did to the liberalism of its
day. That's Camelot and the American Liberal. Again, to quote from Camelot and the Cultural
Revolution. Quote, the most potent element of the Kennedy legacy is its association with
the legend of King Arthur and Camelot. Very briefly, who came up with that association?
James Piereson: Well that was Jackie Kennedy who came up with that. She came up with it
in the aftermath of the assassination.
Peter Robinson: Quite quickly thereafter wasn't it?
James Piereson: Yeah, within, within a couple of days. And of course, there was a very popular
Broadway play.
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: Camelot with the music, that many of us have heard. And that was based
upon the very influential novel, The Once and Future King by E.H. White.
Peter Robinson: E.H. White. And Mrs. Kennedy mentioned Camelot in an interview to Teddy
White, one of the great journalists of the day who published it in Life, or Times...
James Piereson: Life magazine on...
Peter Robinson: Life magazine.
James Piereson: On the December first issue, a commemorative issue on John F. Kennedy.
A week after the assassination, she beaconed Teddy White. No relation to E.H. White. Up
to Hyannis. And Teddy White dropped everything. He had written this book, The Making of The
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: 1960.
Peter Robinson: He knew the Kennedys.
James Piereson: He knew the Kennedys very well and knew Jack Kennedy through the 1950's.
And in an interview that lasted several hours, at Hyannis, a week afterwards, she unburdened
herself of various things that happened in Dallas. And then, said that she and Jack Kennedy
loved the music from Camelot. And used the Camelot image to describe the Kennedy administration.
With the idea that this was a magical time. Like the Camelot of legend. That with the
suggestion that Jack Kennedy was a kind of warrior for peace. Because that was the idea
of King Arthur, that was embedded in the E.H. White novel. So...
Peter Robinson: Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for happy ever aftering
[assumed spelling]. That was known as Camelot. Without intending to do so, you write, Mrs.
Kennedy put forth an interpretation of her husband's death that undercut mi-centurially
liberalism at its core. Why?
James Piereson: Mrs. Kennedy, with that image, quite unintentionally, she introduced a sense
of nostalgia into liberal thought. The idea that the best of times are now in the past.
That the Kennedy years were the best that we could ever hope for. And they're now gone.
Peter Robinson: And if you're a party committed to the notion of progress, that's fatal.
James Piereson: If you, yes. If your party is based upon the future, and progress, that
is very much an undermining assumption. If you add to that the idea that we lost this
magical time because of some defect of our national culture, the sense of hate and prejudice.
That then augments the loss because we now blame ourselves for it.
Peter Robinson: You, you note that James Reston published a column in the New York Times the
day after the assassination, which carried the headline, quote, Why America Weeps, Kennedy
Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation, close quote. And so the notion
is that somehow the entire country was complacent in the act of Lee Harvey Oswald.
James Piereson: Yes, that, that...
Peter Robinson: That's a notion that you write, requires...
James Piereson: Yes.
Peter Robinson: A species of double think. Explain your view on that.
James Piereson: Well this appears in the New York Times the day after the assassination.
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: November 23rd. It's on the front page. Reston, at the time, is really
the dean and most influential of American...
Peter Robinson: Liberal of...
James Piereson: Political reform...
Peter Robinson: His day, right.
James Piereson: That's...
Peter Robinson: He was the man.
James Piereson: Yes. And in the center of the front page of the New York Times that
day, in the center column, there's a long article on Oswald and his communist associations
that they have already, within 24 hours of the event. And, all of that has stood out.
There have been some additions to it. But the key elements, his defection to the Soviet
Peter Robinson: I had no idea that they knew immediately.
James Piereson: They knew that the defection to the Soviet Union, the return to the United
States, working for Fairplay for Cuba in the summer of 1963. And I believe they also had
in that article, his attempt to travel to Cuba in the fall of 1963, via the Cuban and
Soviet embassies in...
Peter Robinson: Mexico.
James Piereson: Mexico City. So they have all that very quickly. Adjacent to that however,
is the Reston column which suggests that President Kennedy is a victim of a streak of hatred
and violence in the nation. So you have this juxtaposition of the fact, President Kennedy
is killed by a communist. With the interpretation. President Kennedy is a victim of American
culture. These two things did not jive. But, what happened was that the interpretation
of the event...
Peter Robinson: You write that Lee Harvey Oswald, I think I can almost quote you on
this one. Was in no way representative of any trend anywhere in America. He was completely
sui-generous [assumed spelling].
James Piereson: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: All right.
James Piereson: He was, he was not linked really to any of the big left-wing groups.
He operated more or less on his own, as an underground revolutionary and communist. He
was not a right winger for sure. He was not a joiner. He did not belong to groups. He
was the kind of figure who was thrown out by Post War America, who was absorbed into
the whirlpool of the Cold War.
Peter Robinson: The assassination and the enduring liberal crack up. From your 2006
essay in Commentary magazine. Kennedy's had been a unique balancing act. Combining ardent
patriotism, that's the, the message of that inaugural address, with hip sophistication
and a mix that could appeal to both traditional Americans and to the new cultural activists.
After his death, these two groups divided into conflicting camps, thereby establishing
the terms for the long running culture war that continues today. What did the assassination
have to do with that division into two groups?
James Piereson: Well, that's also a very good question Peter. Or course, I think that Kennedy
represented a bridge in liberalism. In the, in one sense he represented the New Deal,
and the Cold War aspects of liberalism in the Post War period. But of course, he was
a very attractive man. He spoke beautifully. He used images from Greek poetry and drama
in his speeches. And, of course, he hung out with the Hollywood stars and starlets.
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: And with Harvard professors, like Arthur Slazenger. He played touch football.
He was wealthy. He played golf. He went to the beach. He did all these things.
Peter Robinson: Movie star kind of...
James Piereson: He was very much a...
Peter Robinson: Model.
James Piereson: Celebrity.
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: In fact, he was really the only President that we've ever had who was
able to be a celebrity and a politician at the same time. Others have tried to do it,
but could never bring it off. Bill Clinton, for example, tried to do it, and was not able
to bring it off. So he was a, a very unique figure. So he did represent this new direction
in liberalism that we see developing after the 60's, which is based upon culture, and
style, hypnotist sophistication, all the rest.
Peter Robinson: So there's an opening, even within the persona of John Kennedy...
James Piereson: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: To what would become the cultural revolution.
James Piereson: Yes. Kennedy represented in his, himself, both sides of it. But no one
else was able to ever to bring that together again. And these two sides of Kennedy parted
ways. After his assassination, and one of the thing that the assassination contributed
was this idea that America is guilty. The cultural sophisticates, the cultural liberals,
beginning in the 1960's embraced this idea. That America is guilty of manifold sins. Kennedy
didn't believe that. But out of his assassination, this, this was the, his assassination and
his aftermath, was the first time this was placed on public view that the nation is guilty.
Peter Robinson: Without the assassination of John Kennedy in 1960, would the nomination
of George McGovern, a dozen years later, have been conceivable? By, and by George McGovern,
I take it, I don't know how you feel about this Jim, but I take it as the moment when
the Democratic Party is captured by those cultural elements...
James Piereson: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Negative about America. Get out of Vietnam. Openness, if not indeed an
embrace to the cultural revolution and so forth.
James Piereson: That would have been inconceivable in November of 1963 when John F. Kennedy embarked
for his trip to Dallas. No one could have looked into the future to have seen such a
rapid change coming over the Democratic Party and American liberalism. But, within a few
short years, from 1963 to 1968, the liberal movement in American came unglued. The war
in Vietnam is obviously a factor. Civil rights was a factor. We had the riots in the cities.
The campuses were coming apart. And an entirely new point of view over- overtook liberalism.
Peter Robinson: Why did it happen exclusively to liberals? If Kennedy was in so many ways
conservative, or what we now would- if what he stood for in 1960, centrally the staunch
anti-communism, patriotism, he loved the country. It wasn't until two decades later that we
came up with the term Reagan Democrats. But those people were with him entirely. If he
was in so many ways conservative, why didn't the death have the same effect on conservatives
it had on liberals?
James Piereson: Well, Peter, first of all, conservatives were in no way surprised to
learn that a communist had shot the President.
Peter Robinson: They didn't get, they did not misinterpret the event.
James Piereson: No. They, they, conservatives at this time had little influence in the national
media. That, they had no influence with the New York Times, or the major networks that
helped to convey this interpretation to the American people. But, conservatives like Bill
Buckley, our late friend, had been writing that communists were a danger, not just internationally.
[Cough] Excuse me. But domestically as well. So, there was no need for conservatists to
recast any of their assumptions in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination.
Peter Robinson: All right. After almost 45 years of pessimism and blame, you're, pessimist
and self blame, does that misinterpretation of Kennedy's assassination explain the enthusiasm
that liberals now feel for Obama? That is to say, suddenly they have a liberal, with
a smile on his face. You remember the relief that Reagan, that conservatives felt Reagan,
a sunny...
James Piereson: Sure.
Peter Robinson: A sunny conservative.
James Piereson: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: And now along comes Obama and there's a way out of this cul de sac.
Surely by now they realize that this loathing of America is a cul de sac for them politically,
there's no way out. Obama offers it. I just talk, offer that to you.
James Piereson: Well, that's a very interesting point. And of course, Ted Sorenson has endorsed...
James Piereson: Senator Obama.
Peter Robinson: Kennedy's speech writer.
James Piereson: Kennedy's speech writer. And he said he really represents the second coming
of JFK. That's one of the things that he said and he's written about this. So I think that's,
that's true. He is, the democrats have been looking, and the liberals have been looking
now for 45 years. For someone to pick up the mantle of John F. Kennedy and carry that forward.
Someone who is optimistic about America. And an attractive figure whom they can be proud
of. But, I suggest in the book that the person who really picked up the mantle from Kennedy
was Ronald Reagan. It was Ronald Reagan, as you know, who began again to re-moralize the
Cold War. And to say that this is a struggle between freedom and tyranny. And that it was
the evil empire. And he built up the military. And he had the notion that we cold win the
Cold War.
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: he challenged...
Peter Robinson: Right.
James Piereson: Gorbachev to tear down the wall. So, and he, so it was, it was Reagan
who picked up the ball that the liberals dropped in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.
Peter Robinson: Jim Pearson thank you very much.
James Piereson: Thanks Peter.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution, I'm Peter Robinson.
Thanks for joining us.