John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited

By Paul Harper; Joann P. Krieg | Go to book overview

22
The Once and Future President: John F. Kennedy in the Rhetoric of Ronald Reagan

Paul D. Erickson

Ronald Reagan drove Democrats to distraction in the 1984 campaign by quoting their own heroes against them. Why, liberals demanded in frustration, didn't he quote Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford, and leave Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy alone? No matter how angry President Reagan's rhetoric made the Democratic leadership, however, it succeeded brilliantly with the electorate and may have helped the Republicans in their raids on those groups--such as young professionals--that have virtually been taken for granted as part of the liberal constituency. Proclaiming himself the truest of all Democrats, true enough to have left the party when he saw it abandoning its original principles, Ronald Reagan donned the rhetorical trappings of liberal champions on behalf of his own undeniably conservative politics.

As we all know, Reagan has been using Democratic quotations for years, and often in a very favorable tone. Two of his most important speeches, the 1964 "A Time for Choosing" and the 1980 nomination acceptance address, conclude with perorations centered around the words of Franklin Roosevelt. The prominence of these passages might lead us to conclude that Roosevelt is Reagan's favorite Democratic literary source. In fact, while he quoted Roosevelt 76 times between his 1980 inauguration and his 1984 reelection, he cited John Kennedy on 133 occasions. (By contrast, he referred to Hoover once, to Nixon sixteen times, and to Coolidge in only twenty-four instances.) Even Abraham Lincoln appeared only sixty-seven times--nine fewer than Roosevelt, sixty-six fewer than Kennedy. All but a handful of these references to Kennedy were highly complimentary.

A host of historical, ideological, personal, and political differences separate Reagan from Kennedy. In 1960, when Walter Mondale ran the Kennedy operation in Minnesota, Ronald Reagan campaigned ardently as a Democrat for

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