Friday, May 23, 2008

"Senator, You're No Jack Kennedy"

The title of this post is from a memorable quote from the late Sen. Lloyd Bensten, eviscerating Dan Quayle during a VP debate. But it could equally be the words of James Piereson, the author of a book on JFK, Camelot and the Cultural Revoltion, as he responds to those on the left who equate Barack Obama to JFK. Indeed, as he notes, the progressives of today have nothing in common with the hawkish liberals of old.

This from Mr. Pierson in an e-mail posted at the NRO:

. . . Theodore Sorenson, JFK's close aide and speechwriter, has said recently that Barack Obama is the natural successor to President Kennedy because of his skills as a speaker and his message of "hope and change." This idea has been augmented by endorsements of Obama by Ted and Caroline Kennedy.

. . . From the standpoint of ideas and philosophy, there is little in Obama to remind us of JFK. Kennedy was a firm cold warrior who believed in the American mission in the world. His memorable inaugural address was entirely about foreign policy and the cause of liberty. Kennedy, in fact, tried to run to the right of Richard Nixon in 1960, blaming the Eisenhower administration for a "missile gap," the embarrassment of the Castro revolution next door, and the downing of a reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union in May, 1960. He brought up comparisons to Chamberlain, Munich, and "appeasement." On the domestic front, while JFK is viewed as a hero of the civil rights movement, in fact he came around gradually to support a civil rights bill in 1963. Kennedy was in fact a cautious politician, unwilling to get too far ahead of public opinion on this critical issue.

The reason that JFK left such a powerful imprint on the liberal movement had little to do with his actual policies, which were generally centrist. President Kennedy’s legacy was more cultural than directly political: he spoke beautifully, (thanks to Sorenson) he drew on images from literature and classical culture, he was a young president in the midst of a burgeoning youth culture, he was a highly attractive man, he had a beautiful family, he was rich, he was an author, he hung around with Harvard professors and Hollywood stars and starlets. He practiced the old politics but with a decidedly new cultural approach. Lyndon Johnson was much more of a liberal in terms of policy, but his cultural persona (in contrast to Kennedy's) was of the old school.

This latter fact is the reason that some observers seen Sen Obama as the new incarnation of JFK. He seems culturally to be of an avante garde, like JFK, though his policies internationally and domestically have little in common with the late President's. This says less about Sen Obama or about JFK than about contemporary liberalism, which is far more concerned with style and one's posture toward the world than about actual policies.

Read the entire post. Just to add, in his three years in office, JFK oversaw a vast expansion of our military involvement in Vietnam, the attempt at a coup in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs invasion, repeated failed assassination attempts of Fidel Castro, and the assassination of South Vietnam's President, Diem. It would be hard to find a more complete contrast between two individuals on foreign policy than Obama and JFK.

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