Politics & Policy

The Jfk Ticket

Straining toward a new Camelot.

The speculation has ended, and the selection has been made. It’s an all JFK-wannabe Democratic ticket.

John Kerry and John Edwards are, in their own ways, John F. Kennedy wannabes–Kerry in his own mind, and Edwards in the minds of his supporters and of an admiring press corps. As a writer in the Boston Globe described the Kerry-Edwards competition during the Democratic primaries, “Though JFK was Kerry’s political hero and role model, it is the charismatic Edwards who more often evokes memories of the last U.S. senator to be elected president.” Now the two join forces in an attempt–between Kerry’s Boston accent and Edwards’s good looks–to cobble together a reasonable facsimile of JFK.

In one sense, it’s a natural and balanced ticket. The aloof Kerry has been called “a slick operator without the slick.” By picking Edwards, he addresses that deficiency. Edwards, who the master Bill Clinton has said “can talk an owl out of a tree,” has slick to spare. He is slick to the point of oleaginous. The North Carolina senator thrived in the Democratic primaries on a broad smile and winning stage presence that made up for the fact that he rarely had anything interesting or substantive to say.

But, who cares, so long as he can help usher in a new Camelot? The hold JFK has over Democrats is extraordinary. Kerry would be the second consecutive Democratic president yearning to reprise the glories of Kennedy’s 1,000 days. A star-struck Clinton idolized Kennedy before growing up to become himself a young, mediocre president with a weakness for the White House help. John Forbes Kerry shares JFK’s initials, and has had a lifetime fascination with Kennedy. He fought on a Swift Boat in Vietnam, partly to repeat JFK’s iconic PT-109 experience in World War II. Alas, despite Kerry’s bravery, “Swift Boat No. 94″ doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

What accounts for JFK’s hold on the Dems? For one thing, he is all there is when it comes to Democratic presidential role models in the past 40 years. No one wants to be the next LBJ, JEC, or WJC. It’s JFK or bust. What do liberals like about Kennedy’s substance? The caution on civil rights? The tax cuts on the rich? The entry into Vietnam? It’s the rhetoric and the image–those gorgeous pictures of Kennedy with Jackie–that make for much of the appeal.

The JFK wannabes know the centrality of image to Kennedy’s magic. Between Kerry’s expensive haircuts and Edwards’s hair-sprayed bangs, my guess is that no presidential ticket in the history of the planet has cared so much about personal grooming. When the ticketmates travel together, there will probably be stiff competition for the mirror and hair products. Teresa herself has gotten into the act, recently pronouncing herself “sexy”–an odd boast for someone auditioning for a job that usually involves reading to schoolchildren.

The Camelot image at the time depended on the media’s willingness to suspend its disbelief, which has never quite occurred since. By picking media darling Edwards, Kerry is saying “Bring it on”–the press adulation, that is. He is hoping callow will play much better in the case of Edwards than it did with Dan Quayle, whose youth, inexperience, and looks were used against him. Suddenly those same qualities will be transformed into “freshness” and “glamour” for much of the press corps.

But it is a more complicated media age than the early 1960s. It won’t so easily be forgotten that Kerry just yesterday said readiness to be president was his chief criterion for his VP selection–which would rank Edwards well behind Dick Gephardt. Nor will all of Edwards’s fulsome rhetoric about his absolute commitment to positive campaigning during the primaries be forgotten when he becomes Kerry’s attack dog. As Kerry and Edwards strain toward a new Camelot, too much of the ambition and phoniness might show for them to achieve that exalted state.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.


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