The election of Barack Obama is, in part, a legacy of the sixties generation, an expression of its defining belief in equality, justice, and the prospects for world peace. The Politics of Paranoia has given way to a renewed hope, assertiveness, and (hopefully) participation. But as the Obama transition team begins its work, too little attention has been focused on the lessons to be learned from another youthful man to whom he has often been compared, President John F. Kennedy, whose capacity for inspiration notwithstanding, saw his administration crippled, and ultimately decapitated, by misadventures and meaningless warmongering in both Vietnam and Cuba - Kennedy's own father referred to Cuba as his son's "bone in the throat." Informed observers are holding their breaths in the hope that Obama avoids the pitfalls of his equally charming predecessor.
Although the charismatic Obama's lightning-fast ascendance has already invited the Camelot-"Bamelot" quips, there are in fact more serious considerations than Obama's JFK-like winning smile and his ability to properly pronounce complex words such as "nuclear." Obama, like Kennedy, enters the fray at an especially perilous time, remarkably similar, and every bit as challenging as the Cold War of Kennedy's 1961. And one can only hope that Obama fully grasps what very few have: the tragedies of Kennedy's presidency, including its untimely end, were the result a severely flawed foreign policy, co-managed by his brother, Robert, and a cadre of holdovers from the previous administration, such as über insiders Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell at CIA. These men, and others, convinced an already predisposed JFK of the need to continue a deadly policy towards "the commies." Young, bold, relatively inexperienced, and sensitive to charges of being "soft on Communism," JFK rubber-stamped a coup in Vietnam that resulted in the death of its head of state, and constantly tried to do the same in Cuba. The Cuban follies, it can now be concluded, backfired in the worst way in Dallas, with Kennedy's own assassination by a Castro sympathizer with vaporous ties to Cuba's intelligence service, the G2. The raison d'etre for this "blowback" is now apparent, or should be to those at the center of power.
Interviews conducted over the last couple of years make it more clear than ever that Kennedy suffered not only from horrible advice given him by what has sarcastically been dubbed "the Best and the Brightest," but also from an over-confidence (hubris?) that resulted from his against-all-odds victory. Consider that when Kennedy assumed office, he followed a two-term Republican, who, with an aggressive, albeit below-the-radar foreign policy in places like Iran, Guatemala and Cuba, set Kennedy up to address issues that might have confounded even the most seasoned policy wonks. But the parallels to 2008 are even more acute.
In his effort to recruit the most current experts to ease his transition, Kennedy staffed key intelligence positions with those tied to President Eisenhower. Keeping much of Dwight Eisenhower's gung-ho spy apparatus in place was, in hindsight, Kennedy's greatest miscalculation. Consequently, his acquiescence to the most extreme sanctions against his perceived enemies dwarfed all his other more inspirational efforts. Old-school politics played a role also: had Kennedy survived his first term, a successful second bid was far from a lock, as the Republican opposition was hitting hard at the various foreign quagmires he had championed in order to win in the first place. Somewhat disturbingly, Barack Obama, as noted recently by long time CIA analyst Melvin Goodman (Baltimore Sun, 11-14-2008), has likewise reached out to some of the more flagrant architects of George W. Bush's failed foreign policy to vet, if not form, his national intelligence staff, among them George Tenet, John McLaughlin, John O. Brennan, and Jami A. Miscik. These advisers, Goodman noted, "were actively engaged in implementing and defending the CIA's corrupt activities during the Bush presidency." They tarnished the US for generations by justifying torture, and twisted intelligence data that ultimately led to Secretary of State Colin Powell's laughable case-for-war speech at the United Nations in 2003.
Barack Obama, like Jack Kennedy, combines great intellect, good looks, and grace. Unlike Kennedy, Obama seems uncluttered by the moral baggage that added to Kennedy's miseries. Obama has one other advantage over Kennedy, and that is historical precedent. The only question is, does the President-elect get it? One can only hope, as we do, that the new president will embody real change, a term we heard ad nauseum for the last two years, by bringing in a new generation of intelligence executives, with no baggage, and especially no links to the tragic policies of a previous administration.
Gus Russo and Stephen Molton are the authors of Brothers in Arms: The Kennedys, the Castros, and the Politics of Murder (Bloomsbury 2008).