You have to figure Bill Clinton wants his wife to lose. He can’t really have thought his buffoonish swipes at Barack Obama over the last few weeks would help her. Just what drives him to get back at her even at the expense of a third term isn’t clear; to penetrate that bog would tax the ingenuity of Faulkner.
What is not in doubt is that the former president’s antics offended even Ted Kennedy’s sense of justice. I suppose not even Senator Kennedy’s staunchest supporters would contend that he possesses what Judge Cardozo called the “punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.” Some men, having driven a woman to her death, would withdraw to a Carthusian monastery — Ted ran for president. But even blackguards, though they possess no sense of shame, may possess a sense of seemliness, and by Ted’s lights, Bill crossed a line when he — the ranking Democrat in the nation — started treating Obama as though he were Paula Jones or Gennifer Flowers.
To be sure, there was a degree of dynastic resentment at work in the investiture ceremony at American University on Monday, when on the field of one of J.F.K.’s triumphs Ted formally anointed Obama a Knight of Camelot. The Kennedys, after all, didn’t get three full years in the White House. And now Bubba and his consort, hillbillies practically, are trying to add four more to their eight.
“I don’t mind not being president,” Ted once said. “I just mind that someone else is.” He probably feels the same way about dynasties. He doesn’t mind being part of a crumbling one. He just wants to see all the other dynasties crumble too.
Ted passed the torch to Barack on Monday, but in many ways the junior senator from Illinois resembles another Illinois statesman more than he does J.F.K. And I don’t mean Lincoln. The wishy-washy utopianism of Obama’s orations places him squarely in the Stevenson tradition of noble wordiness. Obama mimics Kennedy’s gestures, but in many ways he’s Stevenson’s heir.
Obama has studied the Kennedys with care, and he won the Democrats’ Kennedy primary handily. But he hasn’t succeeded in drawing Excalibur from the stone, mainly because he continues to overlook something that was central to President Kennedy’s statesmanship.
J.F.K., who barely won in 1960, won in part because he showed the country that he had been schooled in Winston Churchill. He demonstrated that he understood that the great question of modern history is whether free governments or coercive governments will prevail. He campaigned as a war-hero Cold Warrior and argued that he would be a better freedom-fighter than Nixon. He (erroneously) invoked the “missile gap” and came across as the tougher man on TV.
It wasn’t just a campaign ploy. Kennedy put his life on the line fighting for freedom in the Pacific. His older brother died fighting for freedom in Europe. His address in Berlin (here) in June 1963 in which he called Communism an “evil system” is a classic statement of the Freevangelical creed:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. . . . All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
You can mock Kennedy’s German — although the jelly doughnut business is a myth — but not his sentiments. Obama has yet to show that he, like J.F.K., understands what continues to be the greatest issue of our time.
Communism has faded as a threat, but its ideal of coercive authority lives on in Russia, in China, in much of Africa, in practically all of Islamdom. If Obama is serious about claiming the mantle of J.F.K., he needs to show that he, too, understands America’s historic obligation “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
– Michael Knox Beran’s most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.