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Willliam Katz: Pay no attention to the facts

Occasional contributor Bill Katz now posts daily at Urgent Agenda, though he saves his longer reflections on life and politics for us. Today he critically examines comparisons between Barack Obama and JFK:

I will claim to have a good memory. It’s not a memory, to be sure, that’s very effective in the short run. I really can’t recall why I walked across this room a few minutes ago. But I can remember details from decades ago, and one of the things I recall well is that small number of presidents, in my lifetime, who excited the nation and became revered.

I’ll exclude Franklin D. Roosevelt from the list. I was too young to understand. In fact, only two men in my adult lifetime qualify — John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Yes, Harry Truman’s stock rose dramatically after he left office, but excitement was not his game. Dwight D. Eisenhower was highly respected, and regard for his presidency has risen in recent times, but no one ever accused him of exciting anyone. He was revered primarily as the wartime general who organized victory in Europe. The others? Well, try to get excited about Jimmy Carter and see what happens to your pulse rate. I can’t deny Lyndon Johnson his achievements, especially in legislation, but no one ever fainted in ecstasy at a Johnson rally.

I mention these things because of the absurd hype surrounding Barack Obama. And the most absurd part of it is the comparison made with John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy family has joined in this, to my dismay. Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, has always struck me as sane and reasonable, but she too has drunk from the silver cup and and has come to the altar to worship the divine Barack.

There are, of course, some similarities between Kennedy and Obama, a few not the kind worshippers might want to stress. History will note that both men ran for president in their forties. Both attended Ivy League schools. Both served in the Senate, where both had mediocre records. Both wrote books. And both benefited from the largesse of the Daley machine in Chicago. Obama is a product of that machine. Kennedy may have owed his election in 1960 to creative balloting by Richard Daley’s legions. And both are marked by their
ability to inspire youth.

That’s pretty much it for the similarities. It’s the differences that make the comparison ludicrous. Take, for example, the ability to inspire youth. Among the youth that Kennedy inspired were members of the armed forces. After his assassination, it was common for soldiers to leave their hats at his grave. Kennedy served in war, was wounded and decorated, was widely considered a combat hero. His brother had been killed. Many servicemen
considered him one of their own.

Barack Obama, by contrast, seems to feel no link to the military. He is at the other end of the culture. How else do we explain his strident comments, made while American soldiers are being killed in Iraq, that the war should never have been fought at all? Did he ever consider the effect on soldiers’ morale when making that statement? Can you imagine Kennedy making it? It’s striking that when Obama’s ability to inspire youth is brought up, members of the armed forces aren’t even included. Indeed, in his commencement address at Wesleyan University this past Memorial Day weekend, Obama stressed national service, but never mentioned the armed forces once. Incredible.

Kennedy inspired youth actually to do something. I was in the hall in Chicago on November 4, 1960, when he proposed the Peace Corps. Young people did volunteer, and for many it became a key point in their lives. Precisely what are Barack Obama’s youthful legions prepared to do, except work for the election of the glorious leader? Has he given them a route? Some details? Some vision of the future? I’d like to see something a bit more substantive than “Yes we can.”

Kennedy ran to the right of the Republican Party on defense in 1960. He was a hawk. Barack Obama is running to the left of, well, of everybody. If nominated, he’d be the most dovish major-party candidate since George McGovern in 1972. Just picture Obama descending the stairs of the Marine helicopter on the White House lawn, and trying to salute the Marine standing guard. Would he do it? Would he know how? Would anyone watching believe it? Would these questions be asked of Kennedy?

People note that Obama, like Kennedy, has written books. But Kennedy, in Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage, the latter ghost written by Theodore Sorensen, wrote about history. Obama writes about himself or, in The Audacity of Hope, writes a campaign statement.

Kennedy had a wry, ironic sense of humor. I’ve never heard Obama say anything even vaguely humorous, and that worries me. Lincoln was known for cracking jokes. So was FDR. Reagan was famous for it. I wonder about a man like Obama who seems to take himself so very, very seriously, and to regard every word as golden.

Kennedy, when he ran in 1960, was widely seen as too inexperienced for the presidency, especially by Eleanor Roosevelt, who questioned his record publicly. Yet, Kennedy’s experience towers over Obama’s. Kennedy had served in Congress for 13 years. He’d been elected twice to the Senate. True, his record had not been outstanding, and he hadn’t been considered a Senate leader. True, he’d had a dalliance with McCarthyism. But he’d also seemed to grow in stature, had a decent war record, and had watched history firsthand as the son of the American ambassador to Britain in the years leading up to World War II.

Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004, and has been running for president ever since. His record is thin. In the one national office he has held, he has been decidedly undistinguished. He clearly lacks Kennedy’s sophistication on foreign policy and knowledge of history. I don’t recall Kennedy having to fire one adviser after another, or having to explain statement after statement. I do recall that Kennedy had a catastrophic first year in office, despite his background. He blundered at the Bay of Pigs. He was rolled by Khrushchev at the Vienna Conference only months later. I shudder to think of a President Obama sitting down with the dictators he seems so eager to engage. What will he tell them? “I’m the change you’ve been waiting for”?

Finally, there is an issue of personal quality. Kennedy, with all his failings, with his scandalous private habits, with the arrogance of privilege that sometimes touched him, had an ability to look at himself. He knew he’d failed in that first year. He said so. And he had the dignity and understanding of power to acknowledge publicly what had happened. He was asked at a press conference to assess blame for the Bay of Pigs. Whose fault was it? He replied, “I am the responsible officer of the government.”

When something goes wrong in the Obama Crusade, Obama normally attributes it to staff problems. History, if he becomes president, will read his blunders differently.

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