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July 20, 2008
Sorry - Wrong Kennedy
There has been much a do about the supposed parallels between John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. These comparisons (charismatic speaker who fills his speeches with inspiring rhetoric, although Obama's is rather light on conveying the strength and fortitude that was a Kennedy trademark) have been promoted by the Obama campaign. There efforts have even included bringing on Caroline Kennedy to be a part of the Vice president vetting team-although her qualifications seem problematic (but so did Jim Johnson's-at least in retrospect; and Eric Holder?).
Subliminally, Ted Sorenson's role in the campaign at an early stage sent the same message (he was John Kenendy' speech and ghost-wrtier). Of course, many have quibbled with this appropriation (the best criticism to date is this piece by Ted Widmer (Ask Not!Why Obama is no JFK ).
Lately, these attempts to link Obama to John Kennedy have led to his open-air venue during the Democratic National Convention and his attempts to speak at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, site of one of Kennedy's most stirring deliveries.
Appropriating the mantle of one of the most beloved President is smart politics. Americans love symbols. However, the pundits may have the wrong Kennedy in mind when they search for comparisons to Barack Obama.
The career of Robert Kennedy may share more characteristics with the story of Barack Obama's ascent than does the history of John F. Kennedy.
* Robert Kennedy was a first-term Senator who had never served in Congress before when he began his run for the Oval Office
* Kennedy's ascent was based to a great extent on his opposition to an unpopular war that was perceived to have taken a disastrous turn-the travails of which he made a central platform of his political campaign.
* Bobby Kennedy advocated the end of the war and considered Lyndon Johnson a disaster of a President-an opinion which he expressed privately to his confederates but was also reflected -in a more moderate way-in his oratory
* Kennedy also used inspiring rhetoric to great effect, obscuring a record which, in fact, was quite barren of accomplishment
* Bobby Kennedy, as was true of his brother, assembled quite a potent political machine (including strong links to the Daley political operation in Chicago) and was a "darling" of the media and much of the liberal elite.
* Kennedy received glowing media coverage that was priceless in political potency
* Kennedy's early mentor was a demagogue (Joseph McCarthy) whom he used to further his own political career as long as it was useful to do so. When it no longer served a purpose, his history with McCarthy was all but erased (he did not get "thrown under the bus" as was the fate of Pastor Wright because he had already died years before Kennedy's run).
* Senator Kennedy was also a master political operator, ready to throw punches (and worse) behind the scenes to further his political rise. As is becoming increasingly clear -- most notably and recently in the New Yorker article written by Ryan Lizza (highly recommended) this is Barack Obama's modus operandi. He is a very skilled and competitive campaigner who hides his drive behind a facade of idealism. Every once in a while, the mask slips and the true politician emerges ( Barack Obama in his own words regarding the rigors of campaigning: "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.")
* Bobby Kennedy was lifted by a wave of youthful enthusiasm. The baby-boomer generation was just reaching voter age and he made them feel involved in a campaign as they had never felt before. The Me Generation was emerging from its collective chrysalis. Obama directly appeals to this sense of self-regard (Yes WE Can; WE are who we have been waiting for); his campaign, likewise, could certainly be characterized as a Children's Crusade
* The halo effect also showed up in images of Robert Kennedy. Example: a paperback campaign edition of "To Seek a Newer World" (a compilation of pieces by Robert Kennedy) came out with a photo of Kennedy' soft-focused face cropped to make the light behind him appear almost like a halo (From NixonLand )
* Kennedy campaigned as a uniter who could heal the nation's divisions and as a man who could repair the country's fractured race relations; He, too, campaigned from behind and against the party's more established politicos ( Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson);
* Bobby Kennedy drew great support from Hollywood.Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Bobby Darin, Peter Lawford, Sonny and Cher and more stars traveled with him on the campaign trail.
I am sure more parallels exist between Robert Kennedy and Barack Obama. Just a historical and intellectual exercise, meaning not much of anything, just as do the comparisons between John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.