Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ask Not What J.F.K. Can Do for Obama

Frank Rich's Op Ed a week ago on some remarkable parallels between JFK's and Obama's candidacies:

How did the fairy-tale prince from Camelot vanquish a field of heavyweights led by the longtime liberal warrior Hubert Humphrey? It wasn’t ideas. It certainly wasn’t experience. It wasn’t even the charisma that Kennedy would show off in that fall’s televised duels with Richard Nixon.

Looking back almost 30 years later, Mr. Goodwin summed it up this way: “He had to touch the secret fears and ambivalent longings of the American heart, divine and speak to the desires of a swiftly changing nation — his message grounded on his own intuition of some vague and spreading desire for national renewal.”

In other words, Kennedy needed two things. He needed poetry, and he needed a country with some desire, however vague, for change.

And spot-on comments on the likelihood of partisan gridlock if the Clintons returns to the White House:
As Mrs. Clinton herself says, she has been in marathon combat against the Republican attack machine. Its antipathy will be increased exponentially by the co-president who would return to the White House with her on Day One.

It’s legitimate to wonder whether sweeping policy change can be accomplished on that polarized a battlefield. A Clinton presidency may end up a Democratic mirror image of Karl Rove’s truculent style of G.O.P. governance: a 50 percent plus 1 majority. Seven years on, that formula has accomplished little for the country beyond extending and compounding the mistake of invading Iraq. As was illustrated by the long catalog of unfinished business in President Bush’s final State of the Union address, this has not been a presidency that, as Mrs. Clinton said of L. B. J.’s, got things done.

The rap on Mr. Obama remains that he preaches the audacity of Kumbaya. He is all lofty poetry and no action, so obsessed with transcending partisanship that he can be easily rolled. Implicit in this criticism is a false choice — that voters have to choose between his pretty words on one hand and Mrs. Clinton’s combative, wonky incrementalism on the other.

There’s a third possibility, of course: A poetically gifted president might be able to bring about change without relying on fistfighting as his primary modus operandi. Mr. Obama argues that if he can bring some Republicans along, he can achieve changes larger than the microinitiatives that have been a hallmark of Clintonism.

February 3, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Ask Not What J.F.K. Can Do for Obama

BEFORE John F. Kennedy was a president, a legend, a myth and a poltergeist stalking America’s 2008 campaign, he was an upstart contender seen as a risky bet for the Democratic nomination in 1960.

Kennedy was judged “an ambitious but superficial playboy” by his liberal peers, according to his biographer Robert Dallek. “He never said a word of importance in the Senate, and he never did a thing,” in the authoritative estimation of the Senate’s master, Lyndon Johnson. Adlai Stevenson didn’t much like Kennedy, and neither did Harry Truman, who instead supported Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri.

J. F. K. had few policy prescriptions beyond Democratic boilerplate (a higher minimum wage, “comprehensive housing legislation”). As his speechwriter Richard Goodwin recalled in his riveting 1988 memoir “Remembering America,” Kennedy’s main task was to prove his political viability. He had to persuade his party that he was not a wealthy dilettante and not “too young, too inexperienced and, above all, too Catholic” to be president.


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