Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Honorary Kennedy

Fascinating piece.

Obama, however, is clearly ambivalent about wearing the prince’s crown. It’s no accident that the Wesleyan speech was the first time he has addressed his relationship to the Kennedy political saga at great length. As important as the Kennedy endorsements were to Obama’s candidacy at the time they were bestowed, and as sincerely grateful as Obama is to Caroline and Ted Kennedy for their diligent work on his behalf ever since, the candidate has kept a certain distance from the Camelot comparison. Partly this reflects Obama’s tangled identity and paternity issues. And partly it’s a by-product of the stark political and biographical differences between BHO and JFK, his supposed political ancestor. But there’s something else at work, too, in the way Obama has underplayed his inheritance of the Kennedy brand.

The mantle of Kennedy does wear heavily, and carries many things, not all positive for many in the electorate.

On closer inspection, though, what’s most striking is the difference between the two men—and not simply because one emerged carefully groomed from a wealthy, politically connected family to fulfill his father’s dream and the other came from nowhere, dreaming of a father he barely knew. Jack (and Bobby) Kennedy might even resent the comparison to their supposed 21st-century heir. While admiring many of Obama’s skills, they would likely have considered him a softy, at least until he cut loose the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The Kennedys of the late fifties, besides being to the right of Obama politically, prided themselves on being tough-minded, almost cold-blooded. “John Kennedy really had no ideology,” says Harris Wofford, the aide who—crucially—talked JFK into siding with Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960 campaign and is now a staunch Obama booster. “John was a very balanced, cool guy. A moral issue that didn’t have a political logic to it wouldn’t have much appeal to him. The deepest passion John had was that he believed in reason being applied to politics and to problems.”

JFK and RFK would probably have mocked Obama’s willingness to talk with America’s enemies as naïve, if electorally effective. Even the JFK line that Obama recycles most frequently—“Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate”—reads very differently in its original context, Kennedy’s inaugural address, where it’s a minor, softening gesture in an otherwise pugilistic Cold Warrior declaration. And the one time that Kennedy actually attempted to talk amicably with the Soviets, he quickly learned his lesson: Despots like Nikita Khrushchev respect only toughness, backed up by the threat of force.

A question to ask is if Ahmadinejad is as despotic and as tough as Khrushchev. Sure, the ayatollahs are fierce political warriors, but the Iranian president isn't as fierce. And Nikita K had the Soviet Union behind him; true, Iran has oil and the threat of unleashing proxies to wreak havoc.

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