Obama as JFK? No (and yes)
Is Barack Obama the new JFK? A Washington press corps that is forever on the lookout for its next cue wants to know. (There are links below, but I don’t suggest you actually read them; they’re strictly for illustration purposes.) This doesn’t really sound like a question that wants to be taken seriously, and it isn’t. It’s an honorific–the sort of hero worship that Hugh Sidey came to be venerated for writing about every president in Time–and a cheerleader’s cry.
But it’s not entirely fatuous. JFK was the first born-for-TV president and thus the first political celebrity of the modern age. His charisma, his storybook life and family, and his gift for sounding high-minded without ultimately saying much or committing himself to anything are all mirrored in the rise of Obama. And I suspect that Obama, like Kennedy, has no very vivid sense of the hopes he conjures in his listeners or what he’s going to do about them if elected.
To the civil rights movement, Kennedy gave a little encouragement and a lot of stonewalling; to the emerging generation that would define itself around the anti-war movement, he gave escalation in Vietnam. What would Obama do with the hopes of those supporters who oppose the war, those who want affordable, accessible health care once and for all, those who want to start seeing more economic fairness in the tax code and in laws governing corporations?
Kennedy disappointed sorely, a fact that was forgiven and forgotten after he became America’s first prime-time celebrity martyr, and Obama would surely disappoint as well. But there are disappointments and there are disappointments, and I am relieved to say I don’t believe Barack Obama is any Jack Kennedy.
Take JFK’s foreign policy. No one seems to remember what an avid hawk and Cold Warrior Kennedy was. He adored toughness in all things and believed wholeheartedly in brinksmanship and political subversion in the name of combatting global communism. Vietnam was only the most consequential piece of it. JFK blustered his way from one crisis to another, starting with the Bay of Pigs and proceeding through the Cuban Missile Crisis (where he bet the farm over Soviet missiles in Cuba that would have been no closer to our borders than our missiles in Turkey already were to Soviet borders) and a few misbegotten passes at assassinating Fidel Castro with the help of the CIA. Among his less-remembered achievements was to begin arming the Central American militias that became the next decade’s death squads–again, in the name of battling communist insurgency in the region.
It’s hard to think Barack Obama can be as bad as all that.