Remembering JFK

November 21, 2013

As we recall the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, some of those on the left might be a bit uncomfortable with certain aspects of JFK’s legacy. Any fair examination of that legacy shows that he was hardly the big-government liberal they prefer to recall. Indeed, as Ira Stoll argues in his new book JFK, Conservative, Kennedy was devoted chiefly to anticommunism and to economic growth.

Kennedy was a stern anti-communist. And the most memorable phrase from his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — could have served as a theme for conservative welfare-reform policies of the 1990s. But he is best remembered among advocates of smaller, leaner government for his 1963 proposal to cut individual and corporate income taxes — “the most important step we could take to prevent a recession” he called it in the video posted below, a “creative tax cut” that was specifically designed to increase economic growth and create jobs.

As enacted in 1964 after his death, the Kennedy tax cuts trimmed the top personal income tax rate from 91 to 70 percent and cut corporate income taxes from 52 to 48 percent. It remained for Ronald Reagan to take the next big step two decades later, but it is also symbolic that Reagan and his advisers (including Art Laffer) often cited the Kennedy tax cuts as examples of how government seizing fewer dollars could liberate those dollars in private hands to boost the economy. Laffer would make the same argument three decades later as he argued for income-tax reduction in Oklahoma.

The Kennedy tax cuts helped launch a lengthy economic expansion. As economist Burt Folsom puts it, Kennedy “showed the nation that when people are free to keep much of what they earn, their creative energy will generate wealth, products, and jobs that will help keep America the land of the free.”

So as JFK is remembered for his undeniable wit and charm, Americans ought to also recall that many of his policies would make many members of his own political party wince these days, while bringing a knowing smile to those of us on the other side.

Photo: Nagel Photography /