Let's give JFK, Reagan a rest

January 31, 2008|By KATHLEEN PARKER

WASHINGTON -- Americans finally have narrowed the presidential race to two front-runners: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Too bad they're both busy chatting up Guinevere and Galahad, respectively, in the ultimate Camelot, where the climate really is perfect all the year. Eternally.

Back on Earth, where we typically elect live specimens, the legacies of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reagan can't get a rest.

The Republican race looks like a Barnum & Bailey elephant walk, with every candidate trying to tie his trunk to Mr. Reagan's tail. Democrats continue trying to recapture that JFK moment when America was better-looking, slimmer by far, glamorous and rhetorically rich.

Smart Democratic candidates embrace both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reagan. That would be Sen. Barack Obama, who dared suggest the truism that Mr. Reagan got elected because he had the right message for the right time.

Though some Democrats, especially Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, took umbrage that Mr. Obama seemed to be comparing himself to Mr. Reagan, honest brokers saw it for what it was: a demonstrably irrefutable observation.

But all that is a footnote to the larger history now unfolding.

Mr. Obama - the young American prince threatened by the forces of evil - has been kissed by Camelot's elfin princess, Caroline Kennedy. Writing in Sunday's New York Times, she said that Mr. Obama is the first candidate in her lifetime to inspire her as her father did others.

Seconding that emotion was her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Endorsements may be only symbolic, but that nod from the throne of American political royalty erected a protective aura around Mr. Obama's candidacy.

Mr. Obama is golden, and the Clintons, who chased JFK's shadow with everything but the real goods, have been cast into the outer darkness.

At least for the moment. In politics, the night is always young. Indeed, Camelot's cousins, offspring of Robert F. Kennedy, soon announced their preference for Mrs. Clinton. (That must have been some phone call.) In their own op-ed Tuesday, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kerry Kennedy wrote in the Los Angeles Times that rhetoric is nice - and they should know - but performance counts more. In fact, they said one must know how to fight. And the Clintons, no one doubts, certainly do.

"We need a president willing to engage in a fistfight to safeguard and restore our national virtues," they wrote. "We've also seen her [Mrs. Clinton's] two-fisted willingness to enter the brawl when America's principles are challenged."

Not to mention when her previously inevitable date with fate is challenged.

Two-fisted brawling has its appeal, to be sure. But four-fisted pummeling against one skinny guy, as Hillary and Bill have done in recent weeks, has struck many Americans as, well, un-American. And unfair in the extreme. Toss in a racial component, as the Clintons have, and you incite a riot of contempt.

Mrs. Clinton's perceived minimizing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s courage and sacrifice may have been an honest attempt to highlight the importance of Washington know-how, but it also betrayed a lack of judgment and sensitivity toward the African-American community.

Was it real, or was it pandering? The answer may be found in Bill's assessment of Mr. Obama's South Carolina primary victory: "Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina twice, in '84 and '88." By implication: It's just a black thing.

This was not a pretty moment for the Clintons. It was certainly not Kennedyesque from the most ardent pretender to Camelot. It must be bruising to Bill Clinton, who fashioned his political life after JFK's, that Mr. Obama should be the one to capture Princess Caroline's affections.

For his part, Mr. Obama would rather have the Kennedy imprimatur than not, but he's no JFK, as even he would surely insist. And maybe he doesn't want to be. Camelot was once a dream, but today it is a curse. No one can live up to a hallowed past, especially one that didn't exist.

Perhaps the reason we attach ourselves to the legacies of icons past is that we have so little faith in the future. But surely it's time to let Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reagan rest in peace. They've earned it - and imitations are always just that.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@kparker.com.

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