JFK, the demand-side tax cutter.

The history behind current events.
Jan. 16 2004 11:00 AM

Tax Cuts in Camelot?

JFK lowered taxes, but supply-siders wrongly claim he's their patron saint.

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There's a final problem with portraying Kennedy as the ideological kin of Reagan and Bush on tax policy. Kennedy, it turns out, initially wanted to use government spending, not tax cuts, as the means to put dollars in people's hands. But that idea ran aground in 1962 because conservatives in Congress opposed it, while the president's aides feared that the bond market might respond to additional spending with higher rates that could offset their gains. Still, even as Kennedy accepted tax reduction as the first step along the route to growth, he never gave up his spending idea. "First, we'll have your tax cut," he told Heller; "then we'll have my expenditures program."

Like scripture, it seems, John F. Kennedy can be quoted for many purposes.

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For more on the subject, see Shreve, "President John F. Kennedy and the 1964 Tax Cut," (Miller Center Report, Spring, 2001); Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America (1984); and Herbert Stein, Presidential Economics (1984). Thanks to David Shreve, Alan Meltzer, and Jonathan Chait.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.