Saturday, February 16, 2008

You're No JFK (We Hope)

Yesterday, I argued that Barack Obama's candidacy remninded me of Jimmy Carter's run for the White House in 1976. I realize, of course, that this is not a flattering comparison, at least in retrospect. Carter's presidency did not go well, and his re-election bid was doomed almost from the start. Indeed, only fears about Ronald Reagan's trigger-happiness kept the race close until the final week.

The preferred analogy in Obama-land is to 1960 and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was an attractive, young, charismatic senator who challenged one of the great prejudices of his day. Nearly half a century later, it is hard to understand the impact of Catholicism on that year's presidential election. I was too young to remember the election itself, but I do recall my next door neighbor, on the weekend after the president's assassination, finding my sister and me playing in the backyard on a Saturday morning--no cartoons were broadcast that day--and saying, almost gleefully, "Ain't you kids sorry that your funnies aren't on TV today?"

The world is, in many ways, more complicated now than it was in 1960, and bigotry generally hides under more carefully crafted levels of denial. Still, part of the appeal of an Obama presidency is the possibility that America can, at long last, overcome its most enduring and destructive racial divide. The reality is, obviously, much more complicated, but JFK's victory made us feel better about ourselves and an Obama win would certainly do the same.

Nevertheless, 1960 was a long time ago. Back then, nearly twice as many Americans identified themselves as Democrats than Republicans. Even after discounting for prejudice, Kennedy could count on a solid majority of voters who were nearly reflexively incapable of choosing the GOP. Blessed with that advantage, he still came within a whisker of losing to Richard Nixon.

My sense is that we have come a long way in 48 years and that an Obama victory would be far less improbable than JFK's triumph in 1960. But the comparison does not reassure. Kennedy, with advantages the Democratic party may never enjoy again, nearly lost.

It is not, however, his electoral fate that renders the comparison unflattering. John Kennedy was, in point of fact, a fairly ineffective president. His inexperience led him, against his better judgment, to sign on to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He lacked the skills of a long-time political pro, and Congress generally rejected his cautiously liberal stand on civil rights. After Lyndon Johnson, he is the president most responsible for burying America in the muck of Vietnam.

Barack Obama may prove to be a brilliant and successful president. Certainly, his chances of breaking down an important barrier greatly exceed John F. Kennedy's. Nevertheless, rather than surrounding himself with JFK's family, he needs to tell us why he will succeed in the White House where Kennedy, for all practical purposes, failed.

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