It is still possible to argue, as some leftists do, that while JFK might have been less than progressive prior to assuming the Presidency, once he was in office, he became the champion and hope for liberal-progressive. But this idea is likewise not borne out by what JFK said and did during his thousand days. Once again, it was the image of a "Vital Center" Democrat that prevailed, and more often than not leaning more center and right than left.
On Civil Rights, JFK conducted a policy that was virtually a carbon copy of the one Dwight Eisenhower carried out. Like Ike, JFK believed in the moral correctness of integration. Like Ike in the Little Rock High School crisis of 1956, JFK was prepared to use the power of the federal government to uphold the law, as he did when he sent troops to protect the admittance of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, and later to more peacefully force integration at the University of Alabama.
But like Eisenhower, JFK also felt that the momentum for civil rights and integration had to be kept at a gradual pace, lest a situation of unrest and backlash erupt all over the south. Like Eisenhower, JFK had no great love for the overt activism of Martin Luther King and the SCLC or the Congress on Racial Equality, and frequently wished that the Civil Rights organizations would act with more restraint.
In the Spring of 1961, CORE began its infamous "Freedom Rides" on Greyhound buses from Washington to New Orleans in an effort to test whether bus facilities were being desegregated. Along the way, there was a great deal of violence, with many racists assaulting the riders and burning some of the buses. To protect the riders, JFK decided that some federal marshals would have to be sent along. But as Harris Wofford, JFK's civil rights advisor recalled, JFK was furious with CORE for inviting trouble, especially at a time when JFK was preoccupied with the upcoming Vienna summit with Khrushchev. "Can't you get your friends off those goddamned buses?" he angrily asked Wofford, "Stop them."
As the rides continued, both JFK and RFK were still upset by what they felt were the "giant-pain-in-the-asses" at CORE who had invited the trouble with the Rides. JFK felt that the more he had to openly side with civil rights, the more difficult it would be for him to get anything past the racist Southern Democrats in Congress who wielded considerable power. JFK wanted to be supportive of Civil Rights, but he wanted to see the movement act on his own terms. (29)
JFK's less than wholehearted feelings of affection for the movement would surface again two years later when both he and RFK would agree with J. Edgar Hoover that King needed to be wiretapped because at least one of his advisors had suspected communist ties, and both JFK and RFK had met with King urging the civil rights leader to drop those men from his group. King refused. (30)
Likewise, when it came time for King to hold his famous March on Washington in 1963, Kennedy's support was passive and tepid. JFK regarded any march as something that would only be counterproductive in efforts to get civil rights legislation through Congress, and tried to talk King out of it. Again, Kennedy was not willing to go out on a limb and give full 100% backing to the movement. (31)
Ultimately, it was Lyndon Johnson who would be the only man that could get landmark Civil Rights legislation through Congress. As a southerner, and more importantly, as the former Senate Majority Leader who had made all the deals, it was LBJ who had the prestige and respect with the members of Congress that JFK had never had. In the same way that one argues that only Richard Nixon could go to China, one could also say that only LBJ could get the important Civil Rights legislation that truly eradicated legal segregation for all time. But if it is correct that JFK's successor was the one who could get more progressive laws passed on civil rights, then why would JFK, the man who's record was not as progressive, have to be removed from power by reactionaries?
Fiscally, JFK was also hardly the "progressive." As noted, his entire pre-presidential career had been based on distancing himself from the New Deal tradition. To be sure, he had to support all of the existing New Deal programs but there is no evidence that he had any desire to implement a new wave of big government spending. Indeed, the one thing of JFK's fiscal policy that is most remembered is his call for a cut in the capital gains tax, an idea that is now at the centerpiece of the Republican economic program. JFK's own Secretary of the Treasury, Douglas Dillon, had been a Republican holdover from the Eisenhower Administration.
But even if JFK had wanted to push for his own version of a "Great Society", there was no way that he would ever get it given his bad relations with the Congress. Indeed, there is not one significant piece of domestic legislation that JFK was able to get passed through the Congress. His most famous "progressive" innovation, the Peace Corps, came about only by Executive Order, while his other notable domestic achievement, the space program, could hardly be called "progressive." JFK was not so much impressed with the need for getting to the moon "because it was there" but because of its importance from a Cold War propaganda perspective.
Again, one is hard-pressed to understand how JFK's death was a blow for "progressivism." If anything, there never would have been a progressive achievement like the Great Society had it not been for the vision of LBJ (who wanted to outdo his mentor FDR) and his skill at handling Congress. Likewise, the momentum for Civil Rights was possible only because of Johnson's actions, not JFK's. To argue therefore, that reactionaries were conspiring to kill the moderate JFK and make the more progressive LBJ president, have no conception whatever of what the political situation at the time was.
(29) Reeves, 125-126.
(30) Reeves, 529-532.
(31) Reeves, 531.