In today’s installment of Uncommon Knowledge, as faithful viewers will already know, James Piereson, the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revoltion, argues that the true heir to John Kennedy has already come and gone, and that his name was Ronald Reagan. Given the signal political event of this past week—that Obama finally cleared the hurdle, gathering (at least by some counts) enough delegates to put himself over the top—I just sent Jim Piereson an email:
While we’re on the subject of successors to JFK, what about Barack?
This just in:
I am happy to respond to the query about Barack Obama.
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.
Such a claim is hardley new, since nearly every Democratic presidential candidate since 1968 has claimed to be “the new JFK.” This list includes Robert Kennedy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and John Kerry in 2004. Lyndon Johnson was driven from the presidency in 1968 in part because he was not viewed as a legitimate heir to JFK. (Johnson’s model had been FDR.) JFK obviously left an indelible imprint on the Democratic Party and American liberalism.
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.