Cultural changes aside, how does Barack Obama measure up to JFK in the qualities essential to lead America in times of crisis? What are the core differences between the two most intelligent men to occupy the White House in the modern era?
In Kennedy’s time, with no Internet, cable news or cell phones at the dawn of TV, political power could still largely control perception without millions of instant voices to dispute “the truth.” Now a President presides but does not prevail. If he had been faced with Fox News et al, might JFK have been second-guessed and pressured into more precipitous action during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
“Too many people want to blow up the world,” he said ruefully back then, but he did not have to cope with millions of such voices flooding 24/7 media as he resisted.
In this week of Kennedy memories, we will no doubt be reminded that Barack Obama is indeed no JFK, but how could he be?
What they share is brains and heart but from different universes—-Kennedy as the first Catholic from a world of wealth, privilege and entitlement, backed by family superwealth; Obama abandoned by an African father and elected in a still racist nation, viscerally despised by millions.
Beyond politics, there is more awareness of ambivalence and ambiguity in the White House now than in the decades between, but translating thought into action is infinitely harder in the face of widespread hatred, freely expressed. “You can’t beat brains,” JFK would say. Obama might respond, “Yes you can.”
While he faced knots of haters in life, Kennedy’s assassination united Americans in near-universal grief. Looking back decades later, iconic anchorman Walter Cronkite recalled how he had to rein in his emotions on November 22, 1963, his face now crumpling into tears. “Anchormen don’t cry,” he said.
Tom Wicker, one of the best journalists of that time, covered Kennedy in the White House and wrote after the assassination that he “is certain to take his place in American lore as one of those sure-sell heroes out of whose face or words or monuments a souvenir dealer can turn a steady buck,” which he termed “a curious fate for the vitality and intensity, the wry and derisive style of the man.”
In 1993, Wicker wrote again: “The overall record of his Presidency, though in many ways admirable, hardly accounts for Kennedy’s high standing three decades—-a standing all the more unlikely because the years since his death have seen continuing assaults on his personal and political reputations...(B)etween disillusionment and legend, Americans have chosen legend—-as if to hold in memory their own sense of themselves and their country as they wished them to be, as they used to believe they were.”
Let Kennedy himself have the last word. Weeks before Dallas, as I interviewed him in the White House, the talk turned to the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.” In controlling such impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “We have done reasonably well—-but only reasonably well.”