The International Writers Magazine: Comment
JFK & Obama, Profound Likeness or simulacrum?
Let us begin with the obvious objective differences, Kennedy was a white man, Obama is a black man. Kennedy was a naval hero, Obama never served in the military, Kennedy grew up in highly competitive but close family, Obama emerged from a broken home. Kennedy was born rich, Obama born poor.
There were many similarities noticed during the 2008 election, Obama projecting a patrician coolness (ideal for television, a “cool” not a “hot” medium. Indeed, many viewers contrasted Kennedy’s coolness with Nixon’s somber quality) reminiscent of JFK’s campaign nearly fifty years before.
© James Morford October 2012
Before their nominating conventions, both Kennedy and Obama were nationally known yet relatively undistinguished junior senators. Both came to prominence at a preceding Democratic nominating convention (Kennedy ran for the Vice Presidential nomination in l956, Obama gave the Keynote speech at the 2004 Convention). Four years later each won his party’s Presidential nomination. Each entered the Presidency following 8 years of a Republican President. The Democratic Party controlled Congress when each assumed power. Neither had been a strong voice inside the Democratic Party. They both lacked executive experience. Tall, thin, in their forties, both were Harvard graduates and proud of it. They had written best-selling books and were seemingly effortless speakers. They reeked of charm and carefully cultivated their image. They were witty, handsome, had sex appeal, and were married to glamorous young wives. Young people enthusiastically followed them.
The similarities march on: As Presidential Candidates each chose Vice Presidential nominees of political experience and powerful voices in the Senate (LBJ and Biden). A year after inauguration, these Presidents built up military might (Kennedy initiated military activity in Vietnam, Obama dispatching 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.)
More importantly, when you compare the two you discover something not often mentioned: Neither had an underlying philosophical basis as to what he wished to accomplish as President.
A year after Kennedy’s inauguration, journalist James Reston inquired as to his personal philosophy, his vision of the good life. JFK silently stared back at him. He had no answer. Kennedy apologists use this lack of response as proof of JFK’s pragmatism. A man of action, he let his deeds stand for who and what he was, his actions varied as to circumstances. Pragmatism enables the politician to be flexible, JFK supporters said. Any “set” philosophy can inhibit the flexibility needed to get a task accomplished.
On the other side, many political analysts consider pragmatism as opportunism that means “going with the tide,” simply to gain re-election. Certainly JFK did not swim upstream, his economic and social policies fairly conventional, The October l962 Cuban Missile Crisis has been hailed as his greatest achievement. Critics will have none of that. They accuse JFK of recklessness by blockading Cuba that October (a blockade had long been considered an act of war.) JFK admitted that strategically it didn’t make much difference if nuclear missiles were installed in Cuba, but allowing it to go uncontested would be perceived as weakness. Politics, he said, was based on perception. So, avoiding weakness, he essentially declared war on the Soviet Union. Luckily, the USSR backed down. The incident soon became elevated as the zenith of the Kennedy Presidency. JFK’s performance that October, his long stubbornness over Berlin, his speeches excoriating Communism and asking for Western Style freedom for all nations, made him a cold warrior of the first rank.
But in l960 JFK was thought a liberal (his party, to a great extent, still controlled by the FDR heritage) when actually his long held instincts (much like his father) were a tad reactionary. This led to JFK being more conservative than most people thought. His economic policies reflected, if anything a "middle of the road approach.” There was nothing left wing about them.
The odds are that JFK’s Vietnam policy would have resembled LBJ’s. This is conjectural, of course, but not unrealistic. Regardless, JFK’s assassination brought forth the atavistic in the public (only the good and noble die young) and today he is held in high esteem, voters thinking if he had lived he would have continued as the “Philosopher King.”
Obama’s foreign policy surprised many on the Democratic left. When he increased the troops in Afghanistan, failed to close down Guantanamo, refused to prosecute torturers, used drone aircraft to kill terrorists (even American born terrorists) and generally followed a foreign policy that had Dick Cheney’s silent approval, they were stunned. His conservative economic policy outraged many liberal democrats. Every time you open the newspaper or read Internet news you discover another Democrat who supported Obama in '08, promising not to repeat the mistake in 2012. Obama is, they think, too approving of business, promoting incompetents from business ranks to high governmental office, and not liberal enough with entitlements and welfare policy.
Yet at the same time, Obama is accused of socialistic bias, he desires to lead the USA along the same wobbly path the European democracies have trod.
In the manner of Kennedy supporters, Obama fans argue his actions have been pragmatic. But one of his former key advisors, Larry Summers, says you must not confuse pragmatism with what may be a lack of depth, of playing for time or playing both sides against the middle. Summer says people don’t realize who Obama is:
“Nobody has a sense of his deep feelings about things. He has no deep public philosophy. No long held views on the issues.”
In fact Obama, according to Summers:
“ . . . has an excessive pragmatism, and it has caused him difficulty in taking a line and holding it. It is not a political triumph to have both the political right and left angry at you.”
Obama will call bankers like heads of companies such as Goldman Sachs: “Fat-cat bankers,” and then turn around and call the same men: “savvy businessmen needed to get things done.”
Neither JFK or Obama seem to enjoy the Presidency as much as did a lover of that office, Bill Clinton. Kennedy was quoted as saying the public could “shove it” if they didn’t like the job he was doing. Obama does not act as if he is performing as President with relish, often when things don’t seem to be going his way, he becomes a bit churlish. Enjoying “the game of it all” is not something the two men shared with Clinton. They don’t seem to seek the company of politicians, or for that matter, people in general. Perhaps that is another similarity: they are (were) in a sense introverted bookish men who for their entire lives desired (needed?) to be the most “important person in the world,” and neither had the persona to achieve that effectively.
Why So Much Violence?
That the United States teems with violence is no surprise. Although biologists and psychologists assure there is no universal aggressive instinct, television, newspapers and magazines, daily report children assassinated, adults slaughtered, and geriatrics mutilated