Obama and the JFK aura

Many would-be heirs have come before him, but some pundits say the Illinois senator seeking the Democratic presidential nod may be the bridge to Kennedy's image of hope, transcendence

October 14, 2007|By Mike Dorning | Mike Dorning,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --The obvious parallels to the martyred Democratic hero always have provided a powerful subtext to Barack Obama's presidential candidacy.

Like John F. Kennedy, Obama is a young, charismatic senator who casts himself as a generational change agent, and as one whose election would break barriers of prejudice that have long compromised American ideals.

Until now, those references have been subtle and oblique. But this month, the Obama campaign explicitly laid claim to the Kennedy legacy, bringing in the man who provided much of the poetry for Camelot, Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, to vouch for Obama as a worthy heir.

Beginning with an Oct. 2 speech in Chicago, Sorensen introduced Obama as "the only serious candidate for president" who exhibits the kind of judgment that allowed Kennedy to successfully navigate the Cuban missile crisis.

Obama echoed that theme throughout the day, arguing that his foreign policy views follow in the tradition of Kennedy. And he noted in closing that "I wouldn't be here if, time and again, the torch had not been passed to a new generation," a signature phrase from Kennedy's inaugural address that Sorensen wrote.

Burnishing a connection with Kennedy carries clear advantages for any presidential candidate, particularly a Democrat, in evoking a time of idealism and a leader who in public memory remains forever young and full of possibility.

It also presents no small measure of risk.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle, who compared himself to Kennedy in a 1988 vice presidential debate, never fully recovered from Democratic nominee Lloyd M. Bentsen's withering rejoinder: "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has moved to a substantial lead in national polls, one pundit in Iowa, where the nation's first caucus is scheduled in January, thinks the Kennedy comparison could work in Obama's favor.

David Yepsen of The Des Moines Register, an influential political columnist, noted that "invoking Kennedy imagery is a delicate thing for any politician to do" but concluded that "Obama succeeded in pulling it off."

Obama follows a long list of candidates who have copied Kennedy's look, style, rhetoric, even gestures.

Gary Hart, another young senator campaigning on a theme of change in 1984 and 1988, hunched his shoulders and placed his hand in his suit jacket pocket in a way that many thought deliberately imitated Kennedy. Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign featured a photo of a young Clinton shaking hands with Kennedy at the White House.

Obama's campaign has turned to the Kennedy comparison as it simultaneously seeks to address long-standing questions about the candidate's level of experience and tries to differentiate Obama from front-runner Hillary Clinton on their approaches to foreign policy, particularly Iraq.

Sorensen reminded audiences that Kennedy also "had been accused of being too inexperienced and too young" yet successfully led the country through "the most dangerous 13 days in the history of mankind," referring to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union went to the brink of war over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The experience levels of the two men are not a precise match. Kennedy served a combined 14 years in the U.S. House and Senate before he was elected president, and he had served in the military; Obama will have been in the U.S. Senate four years by the 2008 presidential election.

But Sorensen argued, as the Obama campaign does, that voters are better informed by examining "judgment," where he sees important similarities to Kennedy.

As Kennedy challenged the advice of military leaders in rejecting airstrikes on Cuba, Obama challenged the Bush administration's rush to war in speaking out against the invasion of Iraq, Sorensen noted. And as Kennedy challenged conventional foreign policy wisdom by negotiating directly with Soviet leaders, Obama has expressed a willingness to meet with now-ostracized foreign dictators.

Public impressions of Kennedy turn largely on personal qualities rather than official achievements because his presidency was so short, noted historian Robert Dallek.

"With JFK, it's the aura, it's the rhetoric, the youthfulness, the charisma. Those are less tangible things," Dallek said. "That's why it could be easier to use JFK than someone who has a much longer, substantial track record."

Part of Kennedy's political legacy always has been the theme of generational change. Kennedy ushered the World War II generation to power. And Bill Clinton, the last successful presidential candidate to invoke Kennedy, led the baby boom generation against President George Bush, who was also a product of the World War II generation.

But presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose husband was a Kennedy aide, noted that the contrast between Obama and Hillary Clinton is not as apt.

"The difficulty is the age span is not as great as it was between [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower and Kennedy," Goodwin said. "This is sort of like a half-generational change."

Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Idealism and risk

Barack Obama is the latest Democrat to lay claim to the legacy of John F. Kennedy. Burnishing a connection with Kennedy carries clear advantages for any presidential candidate, in evoking a time of idealism and a leader who in public memory remains forever young and full of possibility. It also presents no small measure of risk.

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