Quote of the moment: John Kennedy, “What do our opponents mean . . . ‘Liberal?'”


From the website of PBS’s American Experience:

Acceptance of the New York Liberal Party Nomination

John Fitzgerald Kennedy
September 14, 1960

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

But first, I would like to say what I understand the word “Liberal” to mean and explain in the process why I consider myself to be a “Liberal,” and what it means in the presidential election of 1960.

John F. Kennedy during the 1960 campaign

John F. Kennedy during the 1960 campaign - Kennedy accepted the nomination of the New York Liberal Party on September 14, 1960; this photo may be from that event

In short, having set forth my view — I hope for all time — two nights ago in Houston, on the proper relationship between church and state, I want to take the opportunity to set forth my views on the proper relationship between the state and the citizen. This is my political credo:

I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.

I believe also in the United States of America, in the promise that it contains and has contained throughout our history of producing a society so abundant and creative and so free and responsible that it cannot only fulfill the aspirations of its citizens, but serve equally well as a beacon for all mankind. I do not believe in a superstate. I see no magic in tax dollars which are sent to Washington and then returned. I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies in this administration as well as in others. I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and full responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it. And this requires not only great ends but that we propose concrete means of achieving them.

Our responsibility is not discharged by announcement of virtuous ends. Our responsibility is to achieve these objectives with social invention, with political skill, and executive vigor. I believe for these reasons that liberalism is our best and only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them. Only liberalism, in short, can repair our national power, restore our national purpose, and liberate our national energies. And the only basic issue in the 1960 campaign is whether our government will fall in a conservative rut and die there, or whether we will move ahead in the liberal spirit of daring, of breaking new ground, of doing in our generation what Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson did in their time of influence and responsibility.

Our liberalism has its roots in our diverse origins. Most of us are descended from that segment of the American population which was once called an immigrant minority. Today, along with our children and grandchildren, we do not feel minor. We feel proud of our origins and we are not second to any group in our sense of national purpose. For many years New York represented the new frontier to all those who came from the ends of the earth to find new opportunity and new freedom, generations of men and women who fled from the despotism of the czars, the horrors of the Nazis, the tyranny of hunger, who came here to the new frontier in the State of New York. These men and women, a living cross section of American history, indeed, a cross section of the entire world’s history of pain and hope, made of this city not only a new world of opportunity, but a new world of the spirit as well.

Tonight we salute Governor and Senator Herbert Lehman as a symbol of that spirit, and as a reminder that the fight for full constitutional rights for all Americans is a fight that must be carried on in 1961.

Many of these same immigrant families produced the pioneers and builders of the American labor movement. They are the men who sweated in our shops, who struggled to create a union, and who were driven by longing for education for their children and for the children’s development. They went to night schools; they built their own future, their union’s future, and their country’s future, brick by brick, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, and now in their children’s time, suburb by suburb.

Tonight we salute George Meany as a symbol of that struggle and as a reminder that the fight to eliminate poverty and human exploitation is a fight that goes on in our day. But in 1960 the cause of liberalism cannot content itself with carrying on the fight for human justice and economic liberalism here at home. For here and around the world the fear of war hangs over us every morning and every night. It lies, expressed or silent, in the minds of every American. We cannot banish it by repeating that we are economically first or that we are militarily first, for saying so doesn’t make it so. More will be needed than goodwill missions or talking back to Soviet politicians or increasing the tempo of the arms race. More will be needed than good intentions, for we know where that paving leads.

In Winston Churchill’s words, “We cannot escape our dangers by recoiling from them. We dare not pretend such dangers do not exist.”

And tonight we salute Adlai Stevenson as an eloquent spokesman for the effort to achieve an intelligent foreign policy. Our opponents would like the people to believe that in a time of danger it would be hazardous to change the administration that has brought us to this time of danger. I think it would be hazardous not to change. I think it would be hazardous to continue four more years of stagnation and indifference here at home and abroad, of starving the underpinnings of our national power, including not only our defense but our image abroad as a friend.

This is an important election — in many ways as important as any this century — and I think that the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party here in New York, and those who believe in progress all over the United States, should be associated with us in this great effort. The reason that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson had influence abroad, and the United States in their time had it, was because they moved this country here at home, because they stood for something here in the United States, for expanding the benefits of our society to our own people, and the people around the world looked to us as a symbol of hope.

I think it is our task to re-create the same atmosphere in our own time. Our national elections have often proved to be the turning point in the course of our country. I am proposing that 1960 be another turning point in the history of the great Republic.

Some pundits are saying it’s 1928 all over again. I say it’s 1932 all over again. I say this is the great opportunity that we will have in our time to move our people and this country and the people of the free world beyond the new frontiers of the 1960s.

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9 Responses to Quote of the moment: John Kennedy, “What do our opponents mean . . . ‘Liberal?'”

  1. […] You can read the entire original speech here, at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub. […]

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  2. James Kessler says:

    Tell us, TH, what did Kennedy believe in that Democrats of today don’t?

    But lets play.

    The Republicans of today believe in absolutely never raising taxes.

    They believe in never compromising and their negotiation position remains entirely “Give us all of what we want but we’re not giving you anything.”

    They oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants under any circumstances.

    They oppose nuclear arms reduction. Plus they cut funding to nuclear containment. For example they gutted the program that was paying for the US to buy and dismantle Soviet nukes.

    Then there’s Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan raised taxes 12 times. Ronald Reagan compromised with the Democrats and actually worked with the understanding that “compromise” means that both sides give up things.

    Ronald Reagan is the last President to pull off immigration reform including amnesty. And Reagan worked to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and worked to contain nuclear weapons from spreading to other countries.

    Oh and as for hero worship..considering your party wants to put Reagan on Mount Rushmoore and considering that your party acted as if George W Bush could do no wrong when he was in office…yeah your party engages in hero worship to a cult like decree.

    Then there’s Eisenhower who warned against the military industrial complex…and oh wait your party is the paid servants of the military industrial complex.

    And Teddy Roosevelt fought against businesses being too large and too powerful. And there’s your party today…busily selling out the democracy in the United States so we are turned into a fascist corptocracy.

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  3. chamblee54 says:

    “You …have a very disturbing tendency toward “hero worship” of leaders of very dubious morality and character, and who possess wholly manufactured and packaged “charisma”, It is a trait you share with the Soviets and the Nazis.”
    Ronald Reagan
    chamblee54

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  4. Pangolin says:

    The average conservative in the U.S. wouldn’t recognize an actual political left if it bit them on the rear.

    Does somebody in your family receive Medicare or Social Security benefits? That’s socialism. Did you or your children go to a publicly funded school? THAT’s Socialism. Did you drive on paved roads without paying a toll? That’s socialism. The same with dozens of other services your average conservative receives from the government without realizing.

    The Democratic party in the U.S. is actually well to the right of most European conservative parties. We don’t have a left; we have right and effing-loony-far right.

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  5. Flakey says:

    th “Oh, and I really doubt that JFK would be accepted in the Democratic Party of today. He was not a hard left lunatic, which is pretty much what makes up the party leadership today”

    It makes me wonder who is grounded in reality with this statement. Since the American Democratic party would not even fit into the far right fringe of the British Conservative Party, and we are the most right wing country in Western Europe.

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  6. James Kessler says:

    Consider what I said below, TH, to be a lesson to better mind your mouth and what you say. Because I have absolutely no problem in treating you exactly how you treat me and the other liberals here.

    Or to be blunt, this liberal has absolutely no problem in playing by the Republican playbook. I know the Republican playbook very well…considering I was a Republican for half my life.

    Until they went off the rails into dipshit crazy fascist land.

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  7. James Kessler says:

    Oh and by the way, Reagan, Nixon, Lincoln, Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt would not be Republicans today. THe last three would be Democrats and the first two would simply not be members of either party. And you Republicans have a very disturbing tendency towards hero worship of leaders of very dubuious morality and character, i.e. George W Bush, and who possess wholly manufactured resumes. It is a trait you share with the Soviets and the Nazis.

    And as for being thoroughly removed from reality and living in a fantasy world..well there is the right wing nonsense that cutting taxes on the rich will lead to job creation, economic prosperity for everyone and the slashing of the federal deficit. And for 8 years of Bush’s tax cuts to the rich what happened? The deficit exploded, there was no job creation and the only ones that were all prosperous economically was the ones who were already rich. For 40 years that has been the result of cutting taxes on the rich..and does your party recognize that reality? No..it wants to continue to cut taxes for the rich in the halfbaked hope that one day the results of cutting taxes on the rich will end up with a result that it’s never had before. Doing the same thing over and over and over again, TH, and expecting a different result then all the results you got before..is one of the layman’s definition’s of insanity.

    And then there is your current crop of candidates.
    Bachmann; Religious lunatic who claims to have been a foster parent to 23 kids…even though absolutely no one knows where in the hell those kids are. She’s also a sociopathic liar and is channelling the ghost of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy.
    Romney: Well lets face it…you guys won’t nominate him.
    Huntsman: Again..you won’t nominate him. After all, like Romney, he’s a Mormon and your side thinks Mormon’s worship the devil.
    Pawlenty: Huge failure as a governor and is quickly selling out all his prior positions in the hopes that he’ll finally be picked by the “cool” kids.
    Huckabee: About as big a religious lunatic as Bachmann
    Perry: Yes, even the Republicans are so stupid they will consider nominating a wannabe traitor for President
    Santorum: Yes, lets nominate former Senator Man on Dog.

    And then there is my personal favorite: Herman Cain. He is such a lunatic that he’s threatening to make Bachmann look sane. Oh yes…the idea that we should go back on the gold standard is absolute “genius.” If genius means “Off you’re fucking rocker insane and belongs in the looney bin with the thickest walls and electro-shock therapy.”

    Your party, TH, has moved so far to the extreme right that they’re threatening to pass Mussolini and are quickly approaching HItler.

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  8. James Kessler says:

    Th writes:
    Ed dear, they mean “Marxist”. They mean “Statist tyrant”. They mean “self-appointed elitist twit”. They mean : self-important and self-aggrandizing Democrat snot”. They mean “Traitor”. That is what they mean.

    So when I say Republican I mean “Fascist.” I mean “fake holier than thou son of a bitch.” I mean “self appointed destroyer of the middle class.” I mean: self important and self-aggrandizing morally depraved right wing snot. I mean: Traitor to democracy.”

    Yeah the problem with your list, Th, is that it’s bullshit. My list, however, is far closer to the truth.

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  9. th says:

    Ed dear, they mean “Marxist”. They mean “Statist tyrant”. They mean “self-appointed elitist twit”. They mean : self-important and self-aggrandizing Democrat snot”. They mean “Traitor”. That is what they mean.

    This is just self- serving twaddle:

    But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

    Pure demagoguery and electioneering cant. Democrat politicians have been spewing the swill since they realized that slavery was no longer a viable political platform.

    Nobody but the “leaders” of today’s “Liberals” believe this claptrap whatsoever anymore. (oh, except for “useful idiots” like you, perhaps). It is not 1960. It is not 1915. We have figured it out.

    Oh, and I really doubt that JFK would be accepted in the Democratic Party of today. He was not a hard left lunatic, which is pretty much what makes up the party leadership today. In any event, JFK was a terrible president and a deeply immoral man from a deeply immoral family. They had the same contempt for the average Americans that they had for women, and we all knw how that worked out, now don’t we. Like all of the Democrat Presidents since Wilson (well almost ever, really), and with the possible exception of Truman, he did much more damage than good, A weak, drug addled skirt chaser who lied to the American people about his physical condition and the medication it required. His bungling on his duties in the Cold War was deeply dangerous.
    You Democrats have a very disturbing tendency toward “hero worship” of leaders of very dubious morality and character, and who possess wholly manufactured and packaged “charisma”, It is a trait you share with the Soviets and the Nazis.

    You Democrat are thoroughly removed from reality. You live in a fantasy world. This country will not be restored until you are wholly removed from power, and the sooner the better

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