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Barack and Jack

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With the torch being recently passed by the Kennedy family to a new generation of politicians, it remains to be seen just exactly what impact all of this will actually have on how people vote in the twenty-four primaries and caucuses scheduled for Super Tuesday.  But in keeping with the whole Camelot legend, style is again trumping substance. Since the Obama campaign and a substantial number of Democrats and Independents appear to be buying in to the “heir apparent” notion, it is certainly appropriate to look at the historical record.

The truth is that Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy are not only two different people from different times and places - they are actually quite dissimilar on most matters of philosophy and substance. Much of the talk about the connection between the two men involves the vague sense that Obama makes people feel something – like they have heard JFK did. 

Hello politics of MEANING – that wonderful cultural phenomenon that has one vocabulary, but many dictionaries.   

Let’s look at some of the vast differences between Barack and Jack.  First, it’s important to be fair and say that there are at least a couple of areas where Obama is unlike Kennedy that are actually quite redeeming and compelling.  For example, Barack Obama clearly has a commitment to his wife that is very much unlike JFK’s pattern of promiscuity and pathological adultery. Also, Barack takes his faith seriously.  Jack didn’t.  The Senator from Illinois has a solid track record as a member of his church.  The President from Massachusetts was, for all practical purposes, involved with his church in name only (see my column from 12/27/07 for more about JFK and his faith). 

In fact, most comparisons between the Barack Obama of today and the John F. Kennedy of the early 1960s will yield compelling evidence that Barack is, well, to sound sort of Bentson-esque, “…no Jack Kennedy.”

Jack Kennedy was a World War II war veteran and hero.  He spoke on matters of defense and national security as one who had been there. That kind of life experience tends to be transformative and tempering.  It also lends credibility to rhetoric.

Jack Kennedy served three terms in the House of Representatives and was elected twice to the Senate. 

Jack Kennedy was a Cold Warrior.  He was sufficiently hawkish when necessary and often worked aggressively behind the scenes (shall we say, covertly?) during the era when massive thermo-nuclear war was the terror du jour. 

In fact, it was JFK’s preoccupation with international affairs that is often cited as the reason he was actually, at best, lukewarm on the issue of civil rights during his administration.  He was, in the words of author Nick Bryant, “The Bystander” – a leader who squandered opportunities. It would fall to President Lyndon Johnson to follow through, by that time having full access to political capital generated by the Camelot myth. 

Much is made of JFK’s speech at American University in June of 1963 as being indicative of some kind of personal evolution (it is no accident that the recent Kennedy/Obama anointing took place there).  His address that day includes familiar sound bites – phrases JFK revisionists cling to as thematic to his entire Presidency.  But, his rhetoric in that speech should really be seen as the fruit of his experience.

American University Jack was not the Jack of the 1960 presidential campaign. His 1963 thoughts were the reflections of a leader who had been tempered in his own administration by the realities of what he had referred to in his inaugural as “a hard and bitter peace.”

But flowery rhetoric notwithstanding, the facts are that President Kennedy remained resolute in his actions (louder than words, etc.) well after that speech.  Some of his machinations were not fully known by the public at large until many years later. 

One compelling example of this is seen in what was going on in Vietnam at the time.  Camelot-driven revisionism would perpetuate the idea - as fact - that Kennedy was going to move away from U.S. involvement in Vietnam (we had roughly 16,000 “advisors” there at the time) and that had he lived Vietnam would never have escalated the way it did, militarily and culturally.  Such wishful hindsight, however, ignores things like Kennedy’s involvement with the coup that overthrew South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem just three weeks before his own death in Dallas on November 22, 1963 – and long after his olive branch oration in June. While, there is no evidence that JFK intended events to lead to Diem’s murder, it is hard to believe any savvy leader would find such a scenario difficult to envision.

Actually, a case can be made that the instability of the post-Diem South Vietnamese government was a major factor in fateful decisions Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s successor, faced and made along the way to quagmire in Southeast Asia.  Even Robert Dallek, who wrote biographies of both men (JFK & LBJ), has said that the issue of what Kennedy would have done had he lived “intrigues biographers” but can “never be settled.” 

Jack Kennedy was a tough warrior – who hated to lose.  The peace movement of the later 1960s, even the metamorphosis of his brother, Bobby, from a man who wanted to “get” Castro, into the dovish candidate of 1968, came about long after the days of the Bay of Pigs, Berlin Wall, and Cuban Missile Crisis.

It also needs to be remembered that the fairest comparison between candidate Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy cannot be with the legend of Camelot in the aftermath of his death. Nor can he even be fairly compared with the man who spoke at American University in June of 1963. 

Frankly, we need to compare Mr. Obama with CANDIDATE Kennedy in 1960.  And, ironically it is in that context that we DO find a point of similarity.  John F. Kennedy was derided as INEXPERIENCED at the time. The list of Democratic luminaries who mocked Kennedy as woefully unprepared for the presidency in the days of the 1960 primaries included the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and Lyndon Johnson.  The elders of the party thought the young Senator should wait his turn.  And, in the fall campaign Richard Nixon tried the same thing.  It didn’t work for him, either.

OK – maybe Barack is a little like Jack, after all.

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