David Greenberg with a classic take-down of Chris Matthews’ ridiculous new biography of JFK. The whole thing is a must-read, but essentially Greenberg notes that Matthews dreams of an uber-masculine Kennedy who keeps those elite effete liberals at bay. This fits the sexist and misogynist Matthews who we all know from his moronic television show.
Matthews thinks of liberalism in the same crude, blinkered, and gendered way that he thinks about politics in general. His view of liberalism, widely shared among the punditocracy, comes straight from the demonology of Richard Nixon, who equated liberals with effete, Ivy League-educated advocates of subversive 1960s values. To Matthews, similarly, liberals can never be tough, strong, or masculine; they are soft and effeminate, personified by the shrewish Eleanor Roosevelt or the light-in-his-loafers Stevenson. But of course many liberals of the era opposed communism vigorously, took an unsentimental view of politics and human nature, knew how to play politics, and otherwise defied the stereotypes. This ignorance about the nature and complexity of postwar liberalism may account for Matthews’s inability to understand Kennedy, whom he makes out to be much closer to the socially conservative working-class Irish of Boston’s neighborhoods than he actually was.
Matthews accepts at face value, for example, Kennedy’s description of himself in 1946 as a “fighting conservative,” claiming that he was “clearly drawing a line between himself and his party’s liberal wing.” Perhaps. But he doesn’t include JFK’s avowals of his own liberalism, such as his statement that a liberal is someone who “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and that under that definition, “I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.” Nor, as noted, does Matthews, despite his rote rehearsal of Kennedy’s major achievements as president, delve much into the lesser-known elements of the president’s progressive record, in such areas as economics, education, and women’s rights. Matthews’s portrait of Kennedy is finally incoherent, because he wants to celebrate Kennedy’s liberal achievements without celebrating liberalism.