Kennedy to Obama: the Triumph of Hope

It’s been said several times in the past few days that the JFK legacy has now been passed on to Barack Obama,  thanks to Ted and Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of him.

We’ll see how that laying on of hands plays out with voters, but here’s a subtext that should make Obama-doubters uncomfortable.  The fact that the JFK mystique still exists almost 50 (!) years after his passing reveals something deep in the psychology of many Americans. It is a  force that could well propel Obama to the White House.

Consider this: How many times have you read or heard people say that Kennedy was one of the greatest presidents we’ve had? How many times have you seen him credited with reviving idealism, inspiring young people,  filling voters with a sense of confidence and, yes, hope? How many times have you seen the “Ask not. . . ” line quoted as emblematic of Kennedy’s appeal?

For me, thousands of times. Literally. And yet, if you go back and look at JFK’s actual election and tenure, it’s clear that what we remember and love about him, and  seem to want resurrected in the form of Obama, has almost nothing to do with actual achievements as president.

Kennedy, recall, barely won in a squeaker over Richard Nixon–a few thousand votes here and there, and there never would have been a Camelot. It’s entirely possible that had JFK lived and run for a second term,  he might have been defeated in 1964,  assuming the Republicans would have  put up a more centrist figure than Barry Goldwater.

Achievements?  Once you’ve mentioned the Peace Corps, some reach-out to Latin America, a test-ban treaty,  providing the rhetorical spark for the Apollo program,  and standing firm in the Cuban Missile Crisis, that’s about it. I’m not saying this is nothing, and,  yes, he might have done much more had he completed his term and been re-elected. But this short list doesn’t begin to explain why people so distant from him care about, much less love, Kennedy today.

And that is my point about him and about Obama. People love Kennedy far out of proportion to his deeds because he had a unique capacity to project hope, and he had the youthful energy to make that hope seem achievable.  So, so far, does Obama. And if he strikes that JFK-esque chord with enough voters, they will elect him regardless of his slender resume.

But there is one big difference between JFK and Obama, one we all pray will remain: Kennedy was killed, cut off before his time, and instantly transformed into a tabula rasa on which we can all write all the might-have-beens we choose.  He remains frozen in the moment of youthful vigor (though much of that vigor, we later learned, was itself a carefully maintained facade).

 As Michael Kazin wrote:  “In some ways the national mourning that followed that trauma has not ended, but is recalled with each event, happy or sad, in the ongoing saga of the Kennedy family. There he is, our JFK, looking back at us from book jackets, movie posters, and Web sites: the upswept hair, the decisive gesture, the buoyant grin.  He will always be glancing toward a future that never arrives. The old dreams live again, if only in words and pictures.” 

 And so it was the other day when Ted Kennedy “passed the torch,” as so many put it. Some asked what the Kennedy imprimatur  still means at this point;  some asked how  grand symbolic gestures will solve the large problems that daunt us.  But in the end, it may not be possible for voters to  get youthful hope and energy in the same package with solid experience. If it comes down to that choice, we’ll find out how many voters really want to see Camelot restored.


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