Jeremy Hobson: Well from a popular vote to a very popular President, who was in office 50 years ago. I’m talking about John F. Kennedy — a liberal icon — whose economics were anything but liberal.
Here to talk about that with us is Chris Matthews from MSNBC’s Hardball. His new book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” is out today. Chris Matthews, good morning.
Chris Matthews: Good morning, Jeremy.
Hobson: Well, we know about Kennedy as a visionary; a foreign policy president. What was his economic legacy?
Matthews: It was surprising because this is one area where Republicans of the supply-side school have championed his legacy. He really did subscribe to Keynesian beliefs that the government needed to stimulate the economy.
And of course he believed in the space program for all kinds of reasons — that being one of them; he believed in a big defense build-up for that reason, too. He thought they’d all help produce jobs.
And he did, in 1963, come out for a tax cut. Now, the irony of that time was that business opposed it. They were very much fiscalists in those days, and they wanted to get the budget deficit down — even though it even though it was rather modest by today’s terms. So ironically, he was at the time perceived to be a liberal with policies today which are perceived to be conservative.
Hobson: Yeah, he was critical, you write, of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s economics, saying “they put emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities.”
Matthews: That is so Jack Kennedy. And I think it’s hard to put an ideological tag on that kind of thinking, but he really believed in individual responsibility.
In fact, the “ask not” exhortation in the inaugural was about individual people doing something, not asking for relief or welfare or some kind of pork barrel. It was about doing something for yourself and for your country, and I think that was really him. And I don’t know what kind of a tag you could put on that.
Hobson: Do you think that he understood the troubles that ordinary Americans went through — this guy was a war hero, a Harvard graduate, born into a very powerful family?
Matthews: I think he understood the irony of life’s unfairness. I think he certainly knew he was born to privilege. In fact, remember that great line in his first race for Congress when all the other fellas had not fought in the war and he had — and that was of course his great strength in that campaign, it was a “khaki election” as they said back in the Boer War days. I mean, he was running as a returned serviceman. He said, “I guess I’m the only one here that didn’t come up the hard way.”
Hobson: What do you think today’s politicians on both sides can learn from Jack Kennedy?
Matthews: Wow! Guts. Be a war hero. Be something of an intellectual, a reader of history; have the perspective of your times, but also what came before. I think being honest with the people and about your own mistakes. Jack Kennedy was essentially a patriot, and that’s why I think most Republicans look back at him not just as their favorite Democrat, probably their favorite American president.
Hobson: Chris Matthews, author of “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.” Thanks so much for talking with us.
Matthews: Jeremy, thank you so much.
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