Fred Siegel has a very good piece on the mythology of Obama and how he draws on the politics of meaning ethos of Camelot (why it’s almost like he recently read my book!). Siegel writes:
Obama is such a down-the-line partisan that, according to Congressional Quarterly, he voted more often with the Democrats than did the party’s majority leader, Harry Reid. This is the record that appeals to Ted and Caroline Kennedy and the aging MoveOn.org boomers who have long nursed hopes for a renewal of Camelot. But now as then, a charismatic political personality carries more dangers than benefits. The “politics of meaning,” which emerged from the Kennedy years and has now resurfaced with Obama as its empty vessel of hope, is doomed to disappoint because it asks more from politics than politics can deliver. In symbolic confirmation that Obama’s candidacy is as much about the liberal past as about the country’s future, the Grateful Dead, which disbanded years ago, has announced that it will reunite to perform a concert for him.
A few points worth making. First, it’s worth noting (as I pointed out here), that JFK was no down-the-line partisan liberal Democrat. Indeed, if a Democrat ran like JFK today — to the right of his Republican opponent, for example — there’s no way that Teddy would swoon over him. Ironically, it was this sort of campaigning (and governing) from Bill and Hillary Clinton that earned Teddy’s ire (One small example: JFK ran to Nixon’s right on the “missile gap,” Bill ran to Poppa Bush’s right on the “Butcher’s of Beijing.”). In other words, arguably the worst guardian of John Kennedy’s real legacy is Ted Kennedy himself. What Ted & Company are protecting is the myth of Camelot which has almost nothing to do with the reality of the Kennedy Administration.
What is astounding is how nearly a half century later the Democratic Party remains enthralled to one of the least accomplished presidents of the 20th century. Here’s a short excerpt from a longer discussion of this in my book:
All of this is traceable back to the Kennedy assassination, in
which a deranged Communist martyred a Progressive icon. In 1983,
on the twentieth anniversary of the murder, Gary Hart told Esquire,
“If you rounded us [Democratic politicians] all up and asked, ‘Why
did you get into politics?’ nine out of ten would say John Kennedy.”
In 1988 Michael Dukakis was convinced (absurdly enough) that he
was the reincarnation of Kennedy. He even tapped Lloyd Bentsen as
his running mate largely to re-create the “magic” of the Boston-
Austin axis. In 1992 the high-water mark of the Clinton campaign
was the Reifenstahlesque film of a teenage Bill Clinton shaking
hands with President Kennedy. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee
in 2004, affected a Kennedy accent in school, went by the initials
JFK, and tried to model his political career on Kennedy’s. In 2004
Howard Dean and John Edwards also claimed to be the true heirs of
the Kennedy mantle. As did past candidates, including Bob Kerrey,
Gary Hart, and, of course, Ted and Robert Kennedy.
But my favorite example of JFK-driven magical thinking comes from Sidney Blumenthal’s column on Al Gore’s (ill-fated) endorsement of Howard Dean:
Gore’s endorsement of Dean is the most important since grainy film was shown at the 1992 Democratic convention depicting President Kennedy shaking hands with a teenage Bill Clinton.
Either Blumenthal didn’t realize or care that President Kennedy didn’t endorse Bill Clinton. JFK merely shook hands with a teenager from Arkansas whom he no doubt never thought about again. The rules of the space-time continuum apply, even to Clinton sycophants.
As for the politics of meaning, I agree entirely with Siegel that Obama’s campaign is all about a politics of meaning. But, I don’t think it begins with Camelot. I think politics-of-meaning thinking is wired into the human heart and, in the modern era, the left has served as the primary wellspring of its expression.
For more on Obama’s attempt to turn liberalism as a religious enterprise, see David Innes, here.