Obama and Kennedy -- The Men and The Myths

Given a long life and a little luck Barack Obama promises to be a much better president than the Jack Kennedy I can recall.
12/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"I knew Jack Kennedy: Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator you're no Jack Kennedy."

The famous rejoinder of Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle who had the temerity to compare his service to that of the late President resonates today as comparisons are made between Barack Obama and Jack Kennedy. This remark applies to our President elect Obama who is often compared to Kennedy as much as it did to Quayle but for opposite reasons. I don't write this as a put down of Obama but to mark the clear differences between the two men in which Obama often shines in comparison to Kennedy.

First, there are the obvious similarities. Good looking, young, stylish, smart with a beautiful, intelligent wife, charming young children, both men are quick witted and resolute. But there the comparison ends. Given a long life and a little luck Barack Obama promises to be a much better President than the Jack Kennedy I can recall. Of course the tragic Kennedy assassination cut short his presidency and prevented us from truly knowing what kind of president Kennedy might have become. But in the few years of his governance his future did not all point to greatness. I don't write this to denigrate Kennedy or lift Obama higher. Obama doesn't need any more elevation from me; it must be hard for him to breathe up there in that thin air on Mt. Olympus, but I think it's wise to examine our expectations, and the Kennedy story is a fine contrast to Obama's.

Kennedy was first and foremost a privileged son of a ruthless father, a young man who knew how to charm and win easier than how to love and give. He did not cut a path to power by his own strength alone, though strong he was, but by the force of that rich, powerful, and unscrupulous father who paved the path with his personal fortune and political connections. Yes, he was a WWII war hero, but it was soon mythologized with a specific political purpose, to achieve the presidency. Obama's books have served him in a similar way, but they are books which face his own past demons in ways that Kennedy could not or would not.

Despite all the hagiography of the books, Kennedy's record is a sketchy one. For every triumphant Cuban missile crises there was a disastrous Bay of Pigs, and for all the Life Magazine spreads of Jack and Jackie romping on the beach with toddler Caroline in domestic bliss, there was the irresponsible Sinatrafication of his Presidency, the Las Vegas rat-pack charmer in Jack that trivialized him as a leader and as a man. Far too much Ring-a-Ding Ding to balance against "Ich bin eine Berliner." Both his brothers, Bobby and Ted shared his personal failings, but each had a deeper regard for the needs of the disenfranchised, both were men of greater consequence, both soaring above their personal failings in ways that Jack never did, one to die too early, the other to become the greatest Senate leader of our time. It took the inelegant Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and his Civil Rights legislation to fulfill the promise of the Kennedy presidency.

One can only speculate, but would Kennedy like Johnson have sacrificed his Democratic power base in the South by advancing the cause of Civil Rights? Somehow I doubt it. Yes, Kennedy was brave, risk taking, and resolute in his personal life, a symbol of youth and renewal; a hero to more than his fellow Catholics for breaking that religious barrier to power, but he was no Barack Obama. Kennedy became our secular saint, and like some saints, it requires a rearrangement of the facts and a high degree of credulity to believe in his miracles.

Of course I don't know what is in store for Obama other than an avalanche of economic and foreign problems difficult to solve, and I do know that he is bound to fail in some areas while succeeding in others. I deeply worry about the trap of Afghanistan that is waiting for him, based upon his promise to move the Iraq war to the mountains beyond Pakistan, thereby falling into the quagmire that swallowed the Russian and the British armies, creating a possible new Viet Nam that can destroy his Presidency. I only hope that he heeds the warning of such diplomat experts as Rory Stewart who know Afghanistan and view it as an unwinnable war that will cost an insupportable number of young American lives and the loss of our scarce resources. Tribal bribery and smart diplomacy may do more to pacify Afghanistan than a fruitless military endeavor. But I look at the superb way Obama conducted his campaign, and I hope that he can treat the Taliban like the Reverend Wright, facing it down, and removing it as a threat to his agenda.

Obama's conduct speaks of a man who honors his commitment to love, family and honor unlike Jack Kennedy whose primary commitment was to self. We need look no further than the difference between Obama's beloved basketball which for all its Lakers glamour is basically a street game played on cement open to anyone with a pair of torn sneakers, a ball, a hope and a hoop. Contrast this to the Kennedy's family's touch football played on the manicured lawns of Hyannisport; a family sport to train winners, not team players. For Jack Kennedy, power like sex was a sport, and I believe that for Obama power is an honor and an obligation. I could be wrong. Very wrong. I celebrated his victory but with open if tearful eyes. That law professor's self-control of Obama's is a little disquieting at times, and it needs that wide smile of his to warm the room. There is a chill in the air at times that can give one a stiff neck looking up at him. And for a man with so sketchy a resume as a political leader he has been set up as healer, wise-man, savior; a dangerous inflation of human qualities, too much to expect of any man, but understandable after the last eight years of misrule, and yet,,,and yet...unlike Ms. Palin who sees Russia from her window, I confess that when I look carefully, on a clear day I can see Lincoln from mine.