HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 4, 2008
From Liberty Street

Possessing JFK

John Turner


The launching of the Camelot phalanx against Hillary Clinton is forcing the nation to think yet once more about who and what John F. Kennedy was. It's more than possible that the process won't burnish the ex-president's reputation.

When we ask what Mr. Kennedy did for the country, it's hard to find evidence he did much at all. His most notable accomplishment seems to have been that he avoided drifting into nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. But after reviewing that situation one is left wondering whether he behaved differently than any other sane president would have. That he was sane compared to some of the people in the Pentagon at the time was an achievement of sorts. We have to give him credit for that. But whether that alone furnishes a mark of greatness is hard to say.

Mr. Kennedy has been credited repeatedly in recent days with rousing the people. Okay. What did he rouse them to? He did excite in them a sense of glamour, and it may be the case that glamour for glamour's sake is a good thing. But that depends on whether you consider Kennedyesque glamour to have been tasteful. That, I think, is a real question.

I admit that my musing on the topic is influenced by  personal interactions I had with several second and third level figures from the Kennedy circle. They didn't rouse in me any desire to be invited to a weekend party at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. Nor did they leave me with an impression of overweening wisdom. But I can admit they were starry-eyed -- mostly about themselves.

The question before us now is not so much accurate historical interpretation as it is the influence of an association. If we decide that Barack Obama strongly resembles John F. Kennedy, should that prompt us to place the Illinois senator in the White House? Caroline Kennedy says it should. She wants a president who will inspire her as her father inspired many people in 1961 and 1962. She, of course, has every right to want whatever she wishes. But is that a reason to follow in her stead?

The Kennedy-Obama nexus actually presents us with two separate questions. Does Obama really resemble Kennedy? If he does, how should that cause us to react to him? Both queries return us to the question of inspiration.

Time for another confession: Kennedy's most famous proclamation, the "ask not" business has always struck me as dubious and in some ways revolting. Had he said, "don't be so concerned with what you can do for yourself and pay attention to what you can do for others," he would been on sound ground though he might have sacrificed rhetorical flourish. But when he told me to do something for my country in the fashion he chose, he charged up the engines of nationalistic power, an effort that hasn't served us well over the past half-century. It sickens me to think of the waste squandered in that effort. It sickens me even more to think of the human beings slaughtered. There is nothing the American people need more than to free themselves from that kind of nationalistic bombast.

Will Obama inspire us in the same way? I hope not.

The chief use I can see for Obama's inspirational talents is that he might get people to vote who would otherwise ignore the election, and those people would probably vote for Democrats.

Beyond the use Obama's star power could play in getting him elected, inspiration is a two-edged sword. When people are inspired -- by politicians -- there's no telling what they might do, or what they might support. We need to keep in mind the various inspirational political speakers of the twentieth century and their order of inspirational rank.

If I were one of Obama's advisors I would tell him to get away from the Kennedy association as quickly as possible. Though there might be temporary advantage in it, being seen as the new JFK won't do him good over the long run. He needs to stand on his own feet and deliver a different message from the one Kennedy served up.

We may have seen signs of his doing that during last week's debate with Hillary Clinton in Hollywood. If Obama continues to campaign in that mode, we will learn more about him and Senator Clinton, and when the time comes to chose between them, or to choose between one of them and a Republican, we may be able to make the choice based more on good sense than on inspiration.


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