Obama and the Significance of the JFK Inaugural 50 Years On

01/22/2011 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why, 50 years after the fact, did official Washington celebrate the inauguration of a most imperfect man who served less than one term as president, and had far fewer accomplishments than many other presidents?

The answer undoubtedly lies in why John F. Kennedy continues to be rated higher in polling than all other modern presidents, and why Barack Obama became a major political figure in the first place and is resurgent today. Ideology, policy, even accomplishment has remarkably little to do with it.

President Barack Obama celebrates the 50th anniversary of the JFK Inaugural at Kennedy Center.

Obama flashed on to the national scene in 2004 on the strength of nothing more than one great speech, his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He was only a state senator in Illinois, about to become a freshman U.S. senator. But after that one speech, he was a major presidential prospect.

So, too, with Kennedy, finding his place on the stage of history with his great inaugural address.

When Senator John Kerry selected Obama to deliver the 2004 convention keynote, like most in politics I'd barely heard of him. But his obscurity and newness on the scene -- in 2000, Obama had struggled to even get into the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles, as he endearingly recounted in The Audacity of Hope -- didn't stop him from delivering one of the great convention stemwinders of all time, an exercise in uplift, ennoblement, and possibility that launched him on a steep trajectory taking him to the presidency four years later.

For his part, when Kennedy took the stage on that icy, glaring morning 50 years ago in Washington, he did so having won one of the narrowest victories, at least in the popular vote, in American history. And he did so amidst widespread loud whispers that his election was actually stolen.

But that didn't stop him from engaging in his own exercise in uplift and ennoblement and possibility, with an inaugural address widely judged to be among the best of all time. As expansive a statement of American purpose and power as can be imagined outside a neocon think tank (delivered at arguably the height of the Cold War), it's the speech of someone who acts as though he has long owned the joint, rather than just squeezed in the door.

And America responded. Despite being snookered by the the military and the CIA into backing the disastrous Cuban exile operation at the Bay of Pigs (around which he managed to make his very own mistakes), by his second year in office, Kennedy averaged a 72% job approval rating, highest in the Gallup Poll soundings of modern presidencies.

America responded to Kennedy's soaring expression of his vision of what it could be in the present, and what it could become in the future.

As Obama noted in his speech Thursday night at Kennedy Center, "The world is very different now than it was in 1961." And yet ... "Even now, one half century later, there is something about that day -- January 20, 1961 -- that feels immediate, feels new and urgent and exciting, despite the graininess of the 16-millimeter news reels that recorded it for posterity.

"There he is, the handsome Bostonian, summoning a generation to service and a nation to greatness, in a speech that would become part of the American canon. And there's the crowd, bundled up for the cold, making their way through streets white with snow, full of expectation. A nation, feeling young again, its mood brightened by the promise of a new decade."

America loves beginnings, and possibilities, and the JFK story is all about beginnings, redolent with possiblity, till its sudden ending, a story cut short in the midst of its second act. The issues, of course, were quite different, and yet in some ways much the same.

John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, part one.

Like today, America was in a twilight space between cold peace and hot war. "Low-intensity conflict" was about to enter the lexicon. But though America faces a profound ideological challenge now as it did then, it does not face that era's existential challenge.

Yet even as Kennedy summoned America to "a long twilight struggle," after the Bay of Pigs debacle he looked for a path beyond simple confrontation. His nerve and skill in simultaneously facing down the Soviet Union and averting war during the Cuban Missile Crisis gave him the opportunity to look for openings in the wall between the two superpowers.

In his June 1963 commencement address at the American University, Kennedy discussed the need to pursue peace as he practiced vigilance: "So, let us not be blind to our differences - - but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

A nuclear test ban treaty resulted. Late in the year, six weeks before his assassination, Kennedy ordered the withdrawal of part of America's still small contingent in Vietnam.

These are merely a few details of a complex and in some ways contradictory presidency.

Ironically, as becomes clear in reading the Kennedy literature, and in particular reading Kennedy's own private writings, he was a quite literate man of irony. As someone who led a life marked both by incredible luxury and exquisite hardship, Kennedy could have become an incisive and sardonic chronicler of a frequently ridiculous age. Instead, he pursued the path of power, a path which reaped both glory and hatred.

Even though he, of necessity, employed speechwriters, he really was a writer. (As is Obama, as his excellent books make plain.)

John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, part two.

I was fortunate enough to come to know Kennedy's fabled chief speechwriter and special counsel, Ted Sorensen, when he served as national co-chair of Gary Hart's presidential campaign. (His passing, incidentally, coming as it did on the weekend before the midterm elections, didn't garner the attention it deserved.) He made it clear that, as much as he had himself become the gold standard against which other speechwriters measured themselves, he had functioned as Kennedy's intellectual alter ego, collaborating at length on the famed inaugural address.

Today, even after the revelation of his various imperfections, JFK remains a shining symbol, in part because of a national yearning to believe, in part, of course, due to his and his supporters' skill in promotion.

We saw this yearning for uplift, ennoblement, and possibility in the great success of The West Wing, an idealized version of the presidency that began at the tail end of the Clinton years. I write regularly about Mad Men, a much more acerbic show, and was curious in this run-up to JFK's 50th anniversary year how The West Wing, which I liked very much from the beginning, would play today, and so recently watched its first season. I found it to be a wildly romantic fantasy, though nonetheless very enjoyable, and wondered if it would play in today's far more caustic media environment.

In a sense, the investment of hope in Obama during his rise and in the first part of his presidency mirrors the idealization that we saw with West Wing and continue to see with the image of JFK. Obama's decline in 2010 seemed to indicate that the time for idealization had passed.

But now he is resurgent, his speech in the wake of the Tucson tragedy a masterful exercise in uplift, ennoblement, and possibility.

A recent Marist poll shows that the nation's first black president is rebounding with the electorate, and would crush his potential Republican rivals. Here are the new numbers: Obama 51%, Mitt Romney 38%. Obama 50%, Mike Huckabee 38%. Obama 56%, Sarah Palin 30%.

Last month, Obama slightly trailed Romney, 46-44, slightly led Huckabee, 47-43, and had a big lead over Palin, 52-40.

Kennedy discussed the beginnings of rapprochement during the height of the Cold War in his 1963 commencement address at American University.

Obama clearly grasps the linkage between his appeal and that of the image of JFK, and the similarities in what they represent, and this is why he played so prominent a role in celebrating the 50th anniversary of that inaugural address.

Meanwhile, the 50th anniversary of the JFK presidency rolls on, with more events ahead. The Kennedy Library last week unveiled a new online archive of many of his presidential papers.

The online archives include selections from the President's Office Files; the Personal Papers of John F. Kennedy; the Outgoing Letters of President John F. Kennedy; the JFK White House Photograph Collection; the JFK White House Audio Speech Collection; and the JFK White House Film and Video Collection. At launch, the archive features approximately 200,000 pages; 300 reels of audio tape, containing more than 1,245 individual recordings of telephone calls, speeches and meetings; 300 museum artifacts; 72 reels of film; and 1,500 photos.

The emerging Kennedy online archives can be found, not surprisingly, at This will be the largest such online archive. Only the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush archives have had any digital presence to speak of.

The anniversary of JFK's inaugural also nearly coincided with the passing of one of Camelot's last remaining major players. R. Sargent Shriver, the father of former California First Lady Maria Shriver and father-in-law of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (to whom he rather fatefully introduced the after dinner cigar), passed away Tuesday at the age of 95 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Serving in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s, Shriver was the founding director of the Peace Corps under Kennedy and ran the War on Poverty under Johnson. He founded or was an early advocate of many key groups, including Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Community Action, Legal Services, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents and Special Olympics.

His wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the international Special Olympics movement, passed away at age 88 in 2009, not long before the death of her brother, Senator Ted Kennedy.

Sargent Shriver was the real deal. His work as chief talent scout for the Kennedy Administration, in getting Kennedy involved in civil rights, and in developing and promoting the idealistic programs mentioned above helped give substance to the the ongoing JFK image.

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