Obama as JFK
Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — The Kennedy family has been at the center of American politics for a half century with much of that time spent looking for the next JFK. The mantle eluded a string of politicians, including Ted Kennedy, who lost his bid for the presidency and settled for a career as a legislator. In the intervening years, Kennedy has endorsed a succession of Democrats for president, most recently Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Vice Pres. Al Gore. But never before has he crowned a candidate as his brother’s successor the way he has with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Kennedy sees in Obama the same youthful exuberance, intellect, and charisma that made John F. Kennedy’s brief hundred days in office an experience that voters yearn to recapture.
There were problems to be sure, but the vitality of the Kennedy presidency is what we remember.
It was Camelot. When he was assassinated, columnist Mary McGrory lamented, “We’ll never laugh again.” Senator Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., replied, of course we’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again. Obama is Kennedyesque in the sense of rekindling that long-ago excitement about politics, especially among young voters. Like JFK, he is an upstart, daring to take on established figures in the Democratic Party. Kennedy was an old hand compared to Obama, having spent 14 years in Congress compared to Obama’s scant half term as a U.S. senator. Obama’s rise to become a serious contender for the presidency is all the more audacious considering his background as the child of a Kenyan father and Kansas mother. Obama’s physical courage has not been tested in the way that Kennedy’s was, but we are watching him through a grueling primary contest, and he’s coolly deflected many if not most of the barbs directed his way.
Obama won close to 80 percent of the African-American vote and almost a quarter of the white vote in South Carolina, a respectable showing in what was then a three-person race. It allowed him to reclaim his image of a unifier. Kennedy’s endorsement carries weight with two groups Obama needs to do better with if he is to wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton: traditional Democrats, many of them working class Catholics, and Hispanics, who are a substantial part of the Democratic primary electorate in key states like California, Arizona and New Mexico. The Kennedy nod says to traditional Democrats that it’s okay to support Obama, and to Hispanics that their interests will be represented by Obama.
The Kennedy name is powerful. Just ask former Vice Pres. Dan Quayle. His image never fully recovered after a debate in which his rival, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., chided him, “I knew John F. Kennedy — and you’re no John F. Kennedy.” The style and dash of JFK and his young, fashion-conscious wife were such a dramatic change from Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the Kennedy presidency was more myth and mystique than accomplishment.
That’s why every so often a refresher course is in order. Let’s begin with the Cuban missile crisis, which Kennedy resolved peaceably. Ask yourself: How would George W. Bush have handled news that the Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba? Does World War III come to mind?
Kennedy set in motion equal rights for blacks with voting-rights legislation he initiated. The Peace Corps that he established, open to men and women, set a new tone in America’s relationship with the world and elevated the ethic of public service. Kennedy launched the Apollo space program, expanding his New Frontier to space. His famous tax cut that spurred business and actually increased tax revenue continues to be emulated by Democrats and Republicans. And together with his wife, Jackie, he put a high value on arts and culture as essential contributors to the quality of life.
The Kennedy mantle should not be worn lightly. It carries the echoes of one of our greatest presidents.
Published in The Messenger 2.5.08