The two men, the authors claim, were committed to pursuing economic growth via a policy mix emphasizing reduced taxes and sound money management. And the tax reduction aspect set them apart from the American presidents before and after them.
It’s a proposition guaranteed to stir partisan hackles. Kennedy (a Democrat) and Reagan (a Republican) have assumed sainthood status for their respective (polarized) parties and claiming continuity between them strikes many as rank heresy.
Certainly both men went against the temper of their times by cutting marginal tax rates across the board. But the argument will focus on differences in context, scope and motivation. In economist parlance, Kennedy was a convert to Keynesian demand management whereas Reagan became a supply-sider.
Leaving economic policy aside, though, there are interesting parallels between them. More, actually, than you’d be inclined to think.
Age-wise, they were contemporaries – Reagan was born in 1911 and Kennedy in 1917. And although their childhood circumstances couldn’t have been more different, their adult world views were inevitably coloured by the Depression and the Second World War.
They were also cut from a different cloth than their contemporaries. Kennedy was considered to have the aura of a movie star, while Reagan had actually been one. Unlike, say, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, both Kennedy and Reagan had abundant glamour.
Then there was the Hollywood connection. Reagan was of Hollywood, having spent three decades living and working there prior to entering politics. Kennedy was fascinated by Hollywood, looking on it as a source of titillating gossip and available women.
Charm was another thing they had in common. Affable, gregarious and socially adept, they could charm the proverbial birds out of the trees if they were in the mood or if it suited a purpose.
But this gracious style was an outer layer. Both men were emotionally reserved, short on close friends and prone to erecting intimacy barriers that very few could penetrate.
They were also devout Cold Warriors, reflecting the mid-century belief that appeasement had facilitated the Second World War and that enforcing lines in the sand was the best route to avoiding a repeat performance. And toughness notwithstanding, both were troubled by the dangers of nuclear war.
For Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a searing moment leading to an acute appreciation of the need for diplomacy and arms control. In Reagan’s case, there was a loathing for nuclear weapons in any form, a belief that the conventionally accepted strategy of mutual assured destruction was “immoral,” and a desire to render such weapons obsolete by virtue of broadly available strategic defence.
However, there were also contrasts, one of which had to do with parents.
Kennedy grew up in a family with a dominant father. Fabulously rich and used to getting his own way, Joe Kennedy made demands on his children, interfered in their lives and had no compunction about using his money, influence and contacts to clear their paths towards any goal he approved of.
Reagan’s father was a different matter. Alcoholic and periodically unemployed, Jack Reagan was a burden rather than a help to his son. His mother, the apparently formidable Nelle, was the influential parent.
Kennedy and Reagan also differed in their approaches to politics. Where Kennedy revelled in the mechanics of the game – who was the power broker in which city or state? – Reagan was generally oblivious to such detail. Other people would look after that while he concentrated on the performance art dimension.
Kennedy was also more cerebral, even detached. Ideologues tended to make him uncomfortable. He saw his liberalism, such as it was, as being “without tears.”
Reagan, in contrast, was more of a true believer. A passionate Roosevelt liberal in the 1930s-40s, he morphed into the voice of American conservatism. Mind you, it was a pragmatic conservatism that understood the value of making a propitious deal – 70 percent always being better than nothing.
Finally, both men had the misfortune of a rendezvous with an assassin’s bullet. Reagan survived, Kennedy didn’t.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.