The Rise and Fall of Liberalism


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 1960’s. 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. Why? 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 issues. 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 President. 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 Union… 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.

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