When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he talked of a new generation of Americans taking charge, of heading out bravely for a New Frontier. He did not call up the shades of FDR or Harry Truman, or go back 45 years to Woodrow Wilson.
The same was true of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He offered a vision of a grand future where America would become again, after the malaise of the Carter era, a "shining city on a hill." There was no hearkening back by Reagan to the great days of Ike.
Whatever their flaws and failings, both were charismatic and inspirational leaders, looking ahead in anticipation of heroic battles to be won and great deeds to be done. Yet, in both parties today, the presidential candidates seem to feel a need to identify with and connect themselves to what are now the legendary leaders and causes of yesteryear.
For Democrats, it is JFK and Robert Kennedy. For Republicans, it is Reagan, which must frost the Bushes -- who, between them, will have served four years longer than the Gipper, who departed almost 20 years ago.
For George H.W. Bush, it must be especially galling. For he presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait. Epochal events.
And, clearly, Bill Clinton was more than a little upset to hear Barack Obama talk of the Republican Party of the '90s as the party of ideas and of Reagan as a transformational figure -- unlike Bill Clinton. Indeed, it says something about the Democratic Party today that to reach its heroes -- JFK, RFK, Dr. King -- it must go back 40 years and pass over three presidents, Clinton, Carter and LBJ, who served 17 years. And Robert Kennedy never even made it, and was a presidential candidate for less than three months.
This invocation of the ghosts of the past seems to testify to a sense of inadequacy on the part of today's candidates, a need to reconnect to the party base, to insert themselves in a great tradition -- rather than establish a new, separate identity -- and to a belief that the years since Reagan have not been times of greatness in America.
Since our victory in the Cold War, we seem not to have lived in heroic times. After all, invading Panama and Haiti, bombing Serbia and crushing Saddam twice is not quite the same as taking the measure of the Evil Empire or prevailing in the Cuban missile crisis.