OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Obama, the Kennedys, the sixties, and the world

Ask not! Why Obama is no JFK

In an editorial supporting Obama, the Boston Globe called attention to his “intuitive sense of the wider world.” But “intuition” would have seemed a silly quality to JFK, a realist even among the realists of his day. He and the other veterans he had served with were tired of inflated promises and wanted a world that would live up to the sacrifice they had already made for it. Like Kennedy, Obama certainly has a capacity to learn, and learn quickly. But there are qualities that cannot be gleaned from briefing books, even by the quickest study—independence of judgment, calm determination, and the deep knowledge of all possibilities that comes from years of experience in the trenches. To his credit, Obama has not personally cited intuition as a reason to vote for him, but the campaign profited enormously from the Globe endorsement, and has tolerated a certain vagueness about his background and intentions that now needs to be clarified.

In fact, no modern politician has trafficked more in “intuition” than President Bush, who trumpeted his “instincts” to an incredulous Joe Biden as his justification for invading Iraq, and famously claimed to see into the soul of Vladimir Putin. To run entirely on intuition and the negation of experience can work, and did in 2000. But to do so while wearing the deeply realist mantle of John F. Kennedy is to spin a garment of such fine cloth that it is completely invisible. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — By Ted Widmer’s measure, Barak Obama does not have the foreign policy knowledge or depth of experience that John F. Kennedy brought into the White House, but the JFK-Obama comparison should not be taken too literally. What is needed from the next American president is much more profound than the kind of foreign policy experience that might impress those who view the world from the cloistered vantage point of a think tank in Washington. What is needed is someone who can be the catalyst for a kind of Copernican revolution through which America discovers that it is not the center of the world. But if Obama was to widely tout his ability to bring about such a shift, I doubt that it would enhance his electability.

That the editorial board of the Boston Globe would ascribe to Obama an “intuitive sense of the wider world,” says more about the lack of substance in so much editorial writing than it says about Obama. It sounds like a line from ET – we sense there’s life out there, somewhere. If Obama has an intuitive sense, it’s not simply of the wider world; it’s of what it means to not be American.

The U.S. Constitution made the short-sighted assumption that America’s interests would always best be served by a president born in America. It was a natural response to the experience of being controlled by a foreign government. But America’s future presidents will need much more than strong foreign policy credentials. A global perspective is not a bonus; it is necessity for our survival.

Americans overseas are generally very easy to spot — they have a habit of bringing America with themselves as a kind of psychological security blanket. In the perplexing maelstrom of an utterly foreign culture, a beacon of familiarity, such as a McDonalds, will bring a palpable sense of relief. To become well-traveled does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of the world. Witness George Bush’s four-hour visit to Mongolia which led him to remark that it was “kind of like Texas.”

A president who has traveled far and wide and who understands the strategic significance of Uzbekistan or the issues surrounding Turkish membership of the EU, is one thing. But to know what it means for home to be somewhere else; to really get that there are 6.6 billion people living at the center of the world — if we were to have the opportunity to have a president with that breadth of experience, perhaps we should be less concerned about whether he’s the incarnation of JFK.

The Kennedy mystique

“With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion,” Senator Kennedy declared. “With Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign — a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us,” he said.

The Clintons started this fight, and in his grand and graceful way, Kennedy returned the volley with added speed.

Kennedy went on to talk about the 1960s. But he didn’t talk much about the late-60s, when Bill and Hillary came to political activism. He talked about the early-60s, and the idealism of the generation that had seen World War II, the idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties, the idealism of a generation whose activism was relatively unmarked by drug use and self-indulgence. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — As Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner (or was it Timothy Leary?) said, “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there,” but it takes a New York Times columnist to wax nostalgically about the days when marchers were respectable enough to wear jackets and ties. David Brooks, acutely conscious of the conservative view of the sixties, wants to split the decade into its respectable, idealist, JFK phase, distinct from a later debauched phase (during which of course the Clintons went through their psychological formation). But in spite of its hedonistic proclivities, the sixities as a whole was an era where there was a genuine appreciation of collectivism and the need for mutual reliance.

Brooks might think that a “respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early ’60s is prevalent with the young again today,” but I don’t think this is what drives anyone to want change. On the contrary, it is a reaction against change-averse institutions that cling on to their entrenched power; it springs from a belief that hypocrisy, deceit, and self-interest are endemic in the political establishment. The desire for change is, by definition, not conservative.

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