Was Everyone Quite So Nuts? Frank Rich and Adam Moss on 1963 vs. 2011

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2010 Getty Images

Adam: Hi, Frank. You wrote an essay for this week’s issue on America's lingering obsession with JFK, and what you see as the most important link between Kennedy and Obama, which is the hate that encircled both their presidencies. There are several other political pieces in the issue (wasn't intended that way, but we thought they worked well together) dealing with the peculiar climate we're now in. But for this conversation, as a matter of contrast, can you roughly compare the political scene in Kennedy's day to ours? In your essay, you talk about the hate brewing in Dallas, but what about Washington? Were the political players more rational (whatever that means) than they are now? Would a supercommittee on the debt in 1963 have been any more successful than this one? Was everyone quite so nuts?

Frank: Hi, Adam. Of course Washington has had contentious, unproductive or just plain moribund periods throughout the past, but that was not the case as Kennedy took office in early 1961. Thanks to Lyndon Johnson's leadership as Senate Majority Leader in the fifties, a do-nothing Congress had come back to life and had accomplishments to show for it, including early civil rights legislation. (This gripping story is told in Robert Caro's The Master of the Senate.) That productive spurt faded once JFK came in after a very close election — with LBJ now sidelined as vice-president — and the new president, blocked by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats, was something of a legislative washout. And yet the mood in D.C. then was not marked by the level of acrimony, take-no-prisoners intransigence, and, as you say, sheer nuttiness we see today. There was a functioning Washington then; we have a non-functioning Washington now. It's hard to imagine such a "supercommittee" even existing in those days. This Rube Goldberg contraption is very much an invention of our time: a harebrained fantasy of impotent politicians in both parties hoping to pass the buck for their own failure to govern. It was laughable from the moment of its creation. Only the Washington press corps and those pundits who endorse every doomed "bipartisan" scheme took it seriously. Certainly voters outside the Beltway did not.

Adam: We'll get back to the supercommittee in a moment. For now, I want to understand ‘63 a bit better. Would you date the beginning of modern conservatism to that period? After the assassination, after all, Barry Goldwater became the GOP nominee — and he wasn’t exactly an Eisenhower Republican. Also, I'm curious — what was the relationship of the right in Kennedy's day to the hate brewing in Dallas?  How deep do the parallels with our own time go?

Frank: Yes, modern conservatism was in full swing then, and beginning to assume a Sunbelt identity distinct from the Joe McCarthy era. (Orange County, California, was the epicenter of the new right.) During the JFK years, the embryonic Goldwater movement was busy organizing to conquer the GOP, often under the radar of a Establishment press that focused on the Nixon–Rockefeller matrix. The hatred in Dallas, with flyers calling for Kennedy to be tried for treason, was the most over-the-top expression of this rising radical right. And the parallels between then and now are not hard to find. The incident that preceded JFK's tragic trip to Dallas — where the U.N. Ambassador and former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was spat upon by a mob of demonstrators — recalls the scene on Capitol Hill last year where tea partiers heckled and taunted John Lewis and other members of Congress in a protest of Obamacare. There are other parallels, too: For starters, Charles and David Koch's father was a founding backer of the John Birch Society. Birchers regarded even Ike as ideologically suspect, much as today's tea partiers, funded by the current Kochs, loathe Romney and even conservative Establishment senators like the now-vanquished Robert Bennett of Utah.

Adam: So now let's speed ahead through time, after Goldwater is defeated in a landslide, past Richard Nixon (more moderate in some senses than Obama), and Ronald Reagan (conservative certainly, but not so unyielding as the current crop), through George Bush the elder, who may or may not have lost his job because he raised taxes, to his son W., who moved from the "compassionate conservatism" he ran on to a stricter version in the practice of his presidency. It's not a straight line, to be sure, but it’s a pretty clear one. Generally speaking, what happened to the GOP over the past fifty years to get us to where we are today? What hardened it over time? I know I'm asking you to boil what could be a five-volume tome to a single paragraph in a dialogue — but indulge me.

Frank: I like that fast-action history! My own and no doubt highly simplistic CliffsNotes version of the overall half-century drift toward that hardening is this, more or less: 1) The old Southern Democrats bolted from their Party for the GOP, just as LBJ predicted when he embraced the civil rights juggernaut; 2) Those aggrieved whites eventually merged with other new Reagan Republicans — most of them also white, some of them (not all) older, some fundamentalist Christian in values, some lacking the skills to compete in the ruthless new globalization marketplace; 3) This retooled GOP base, a far cry from the old Yankee Republican Establishment, is as much a victim of the 99 percent–1 percent inequality as their counterparts on the left. They hold not just government and the elites in contempt but also resent newly empowered minorities (racial and otherwise), whom they see as stealing their lunch and undermining their values. This is the 75 percent or so of the GOP that will never warm to Romney.

Adam: That number is strikingly persistent. Last week there was even a poll that showed Romney neck and neck with Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire. Gingrich! In New Hampshire! If Romney doesn’t win there, he’s finished. There's just no mistaking the drift of the GOP these days. In this issue of the magazine, David Frum, who worked for W. as a speechwriter, mounts a strong attack on his party for drifting away from its principles (and sanity). You've read it. What did you think of Frum's case?

Frank: I don't want to say too much because I think everyone should read his piece (and I don't want to sound abjectly promotional besides). I will say just this: It is fascinating to read a genuine conservative come to essentially the same conclusions that many of us have arrived at since the rise of Palin in 2008 — but who does so from a much different political–intellectual worldview. And as Frum writes, whether you agree with him or not, the bottom line is irrefutable: This country is going to be in the shitter no matter what happens in 2012 as long as one of our two major parties remains determined to hold government hostage. That is the bottom line.

Adam: Which brings us back to the supercommittee and its deadlock. Obviously it's no surprise, but do you feel, as Paul Krugman (and now others, including Jon Chait, have written), that a failure to come to a solution is in fact better than any of the potential solutions? Is a government that does nothing better than a government that does harm?

Frank: They are completely right — this entire exercise was cynical and nothing good would ever have come out of it. The whole premise of the supercommittee was false. The stark alternatives in your last question assume that this supercommittee is "the government." It isn't. It was an extra-legal gimmick created by a failed government as a fig leaf. So as far as I'm concerned, it never had any governmental or political legitimacy.

Adam: Okay, Frank, final question. There’s a lovely passage in your JFK essay where you say, “I find Kennedy’s presidency a half-remembered dream now, beautiful, even erotic, but somewhat weightless in content.” That follows a wistful line in which you say that, like Stephen King (whose new book, 11/22/63, you are writing about in the essay), you have wondered if all the calamities of the late sixties — and presumably, what followed — might have been avoided had he lived. Since we’ve been talking about history here, would you care to offer your own super-condensed counterfactual fantasy here, taking us up to today? Plausibility not required.

Frank: In 11/22/63, King comes up with an explosive counterfactual fantasy — he says he did it after consulting with Dick Goodwin, the former JFK speechwriter, and the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin — that is so powerful it's drowning out my own thoughts. (I will not spoil it.) For my own part, I don't think the major post-assassination LBJ Great Society legislation on civil rights, Medicare, et al, would have happened nearly as fast had not the slain president's death created an urgency in Washington. Vietnam might well have kept escalating under JFK, but I suspect he would have cut his losses (and cashiered his national security team) much faster than the insecure and egomaniacal LBJ. We might have avoided the Bobby Kennedy assassination and the Nixon comeback, but not the racial battles of the late sixties. The rise of the already-ascendant new right might have happened faster without the intermission of the assassination. The feminist revolution and the gay civil rights movement were also inevitable. And the counterculture? The Beatles were formed in 1962. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released in spring 1963. So America was already blowin' in the wind before Kennedy was killed and would have kept doing so. But maybe by some counterfactual miracle we would ultimately have been spared bellbottoms, Barry Manilow, and Chico and the Man.

Adam: Many thanks. Until next time.