Ransacking the legacy of former presidents is about as venerable a political technique as there is. If you can go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, as Democrats did in the 1980s in opposing Reagan's "entangling" anti-Communist engagements in Central America, so much the better. Democrats and Republicans routinely invoke the two Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower in supporting everything from environmentalism to resisting the military-industrial complex.
But, oh, tamper with the memory of John F. Kennedy and the guardians of the flame will strike you down for sacrilege. The Sopranos aren't half as fast defending their own.
Consider: A private conservative group has been running regional radio ads supporting the Bush tax plan, citing Kennedy's across-the-board tax cut and using clips of his December 1962 speech to the Economic Club of New York.
Well. You'd have thought the Taliban had blasted away the giant JFK bust in the Kennedy Center. Brother Teddy and daughter Caroline shot off an angry letter (1) denouncing the ad and (2) demanding that the perpetrators "cease from using President Kennedy's image and voice in any political advertising you are running in support of President Bush's proposed tax cut."
The denunciation is fair enough. The demand is comic, though characteristic, Kennedy presumption.
Note first that the letter is not from associates, say, former Treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen, the man who famously told Dan Quayle: "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine." This is from kin. This is personal.
The official reason for the attack on the ads is their alleged intellectual dishonesty. Yet Teddy betrayed the deeper reason when he called the ads "rather indecent." The Boston Globe echoed that sense of hallowness breached. It pronounced guilty of "bad taste" those daring "to dragoon a revered former president into their service in such a misleading fashion."
This is ridiculous. It is yet another instance of this family appropriating for itself the legacy of the 35th American president. By what right? Divine? "If President Kennedy were here today, he would vigorously oppose President Bush's irresponsible tax scheme," sayeth Ted and Caroline. They can be no more certain of that, especially given what JFK said and did in 1962, than anyone else.
The family is clearly playing on his martyrdom. Martyred he was. But regarding the political use of his official record, that is an irrelevancy. Like all other presidents, Kennedy left a record. It belongs to all Americans. For what other president would someone dare claim that the use of his "image and voice" be prohibited?
In fact, the ads are perfectly reasonable. The ostensible reason for Teddy and Caroline's outrage is that Kennedy's tax cut returned fewer aggregate dollars than would Bush's to those earning over $300,000. But today, the class of wealthier people is larger than 40 years ago -- in part because of prosperity set off by the Kennedy tax cuts.
Sure, the aggregate amount of money returned to the wealthy is higher. So what? The key point is that the Kennedy tax cut returned to the wealthiest Americans 26 cents on every marginal dollar they earned. The Bush tax cut would return less than 7 cents.
Kennedy cut rates for the very wealthiest by almost one-third (from 91 percent to 65 percent). Bush cuts them by only one-sixth (from 39.6 percent to 33 percent).
Moreover, the ads showed President Kennedy defending the principle of cutting even the highest marginal rates. The "current tax system," he says in the speech, "exerts too heavy a drag on growth" and "reduces the financial incentives for personal effort, investment and risk taking." Investment and risk taking are precisely the activities of the wealthy. Indeed, in one clip Kennedy says that the poorer Americans will spend the tax refund, while the richer ones will invest it.
That is the heart of the tax argument today: lower tax rates for the wealthy. Citing Kennedy on this question is a perfectly legitimate recourse to history.
Today's Democrats, unlike Kennedy, oppose cutting the highest marginal rates as an affront to fairness because the rich invariably benefit disproportionately. The logic of that position, however, is that one can never cut the upper rates. They can only be ratcheted higher. That is precisely how we got to the 91 percent rate that Kennedy decried -- and cut.
Having signed on for a tidy $900 billion tax cut of their own, the Democrats (to paraphrase the famous dinner repartee between the gentleman and the willing lady) have established the principle and are now only haggling over price. The fact that we hear cries of sacrilege about a perfectly reasonable analogy to JFK's tax cut is a sign of how at sea the Democrats find themselves, shorn of power and recovering from Clinton.