The Corner

The Next JFK

I wrote a column for Politico today on how Obama’s chief legacy will be as a cultural symbol, especially for the Left:

He will be remembered — and revered — by his admirers as his generation’s JFK. Lasting substantive achievements are besides the point when ascending to this iconic status. As Ross Douthat of the New York Times points out, Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and it was hardly a speed bump in the creation of the image of Camelot.

The standards here are largely stylistic. And Obama checks nearly every box: He was a young president; a photogenic man with a good-looking family; a symbol of generational change; an orator given to flights of inspiring rhetoric; if not a wit exactly, a facile talker with a taste for mocking the other side.

The process is a little like Romans deciding which emperors to make gods after their deaths, depending on their reputations. For Democrats, LBJ and Jimmy Carter were too unglamorous and too obviously failures, whereas Bill Clinton gave too much ground to Republicans (besides failing to keep his dalliances discreet). Obama won two terms, is as ideologically pure as reasonably possible, and has cultural staying power.

The original myth of Camelot was borne aloft by the tragedy of JFK’s assassination, which created a certain suspension of disbelief about the young martyred president.

Obama isn’t a martyr, but his supporters have experienced the election of Donald Trump as a major trauma. For them, the poignancy and power of Obama as a symbol of what they consider a better American will increase every single day of the Trump years.