[I posted this twenty-four hours ago over at The Moderate Voice, where I'm a contributor.]
The death of a young person is a tragedy that freezes their image in time and subjects it to romantic embellishments. The deceased becomes a template.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy had served as President of the United States for two years and ten months. He was poised to be renominated by his party in 1964 and would have likely defeated the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, though not by the massive proportions that Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson, skillfully employing grief over Kennedy's violent passing and his own extraordinary legislative and political skills, enjoyed. In 1964, Goldwater, his generation's Mr. Conservative, was, in that era, considered too "out there."
Yet, Kennedy had his troubles. He had gone from a position of ambivalence about civil rights to favoring a new Civil Rights Act by the time his plane touched down in Texas for a journey of political fence-mending, but a combination of Southern Democrats and some Northern Republicans had checked his tepid efforts at getting a bill passed. In fact, he had been fairly thwarted in getting much of anything accomplished. In short, Kennedy's legacy reflected a lifelong penchant for dissipation coupled with a fierce commitment to personal victory at any cost.
And then he was murdered. Through a haze of national grief, the nation early on embraced the Camelot image of Kennedy's brief White House tenure suggested by his widow, Jacqueline, to writer and Kennedy friend, Theodore White.
For years afterward, Democratic activists and political pundits alike, were looking for the next Kennedy. A 1972 Esquire cover article gave voice to this widespread yearning. A short feature included in the piece briefly portrayed several potential wearers of the Kennedy crown. Entitled, 'The Ghost of Charisma Past,' a young John Kerry was among the pretenders.
Kerry obviously emulated JFK. And not just in the initials he shared with the late president. The post-1963 image of Kennedy was imprinted on generations of Democratic politicians as the gold standard. He was the pol to be emulated. It's been apparent not only in Kerry, but also in Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, John Tunney, John Lindsey, and many others. Each, in their own way, whether self-consciously or involuntarily, have evoked memories of Kennedy, replicating the cartoonish image of their hero in ways that Republican candidates would ape Ronald Reagan two decades later. These imitators of Camelot Jack sought to use soaring rhetoric. They sported bushy thickets of hair, employed self-deprecation, gave the appearance of being an intellectual, and, always, affected an air of slight detachment. Like the scion of the millionaire bootlegger who may have felt that he owed it to his dad to be president but, except for the thrill of beating all comers, didn't really want to sit in the Oval Office, his imitators affected a similar indifference.
JFK was cool, not in the Rat Pack sense, although Kennedy used Sinatra's posse for his own ends until he was in the White House and could drop Frank and Company. Instead, JFK was cool like Prince Phillip before the Windsors' reputation went south, like Grace Kelly: compelling, attractive, serene, unapproachable, a bit amused by it all, and oh-so-entitled.
Candidates like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Paul Tsongas, liberals who sweat, felt comfortable in union halls, and bought their suits off the rack at J.C. Penney, couldn't be the role models of candidates like Hart and Kerry. Nor would those looking for the Second Coming of Camelot accept mere mortals like Humphrey et al. Their beau ideal floated above the mundane. In the minds of millions of Kennedy-worshipers, the leader they wanted was a philosopher-king, the JFK who never was.
A fact that eluded the Camelot nostalgists is that none of these JFK imitators were able to get elected President. And in the more democratic pre-convention processes that have existed since 1972, they usually haven't even been able to secure nominations.
But the post-1963 JFK template continues to exercise enormous influence over the Democratic imagination. In many ways, Barack Obama is the latest exemplar of it. In spite of his demonstrably-humble roots, the charge, both implicit and explicit, levied by his opponents this year, that Obama is an elitist, out of touch with the lives and concerns of average Americans, is the result of the senator's embodiment of the JFK ideal. It's interesting that among the main reasons given for endorsing the first-term US senator for president by Kennedy's brother Edward and daughter Caroline is that Obama evoked the same passions and stoked the same liberal dreams that JFK once did.
Some voters will reject Obama simply because of his race. That racism still exerts its evil influence over American life in 2008 is tragic and frankly, despicable.
But much of Obama's now well-documented trouble in connecting with working class whites, Reagan Democrats, and Clinton supporters is that he also, like Kerry before him, is seen as too detached, too out of step with them. Obama's long, seemingly temporizing answers, such as those he gave during his sit-down with Rick Warren...his apparent inability to just say what he thinks...These are Kennedy-esque and, in many ways, out of touch with these times.
John Althouse Cohen has written a thoughtful piece on how Obama has "lost him." He intends still to vote for Obama and has invested much in the senator's candidacy, including participation as an Obama supporter in the Texas caucuses earlier this year. But Cohen doesn't have the same passion for Obama that he once had.
Cohen's sentiments echo those of other Obama supporters I know. They're still going to vote for him. They're too fed up with Bush, Iraq, and the economy to consider doing otherwise. But they don't feel the same passionate connection to Obama they once felt.
If anything, the events of the past week have probably sealed the deal for Obama. He will be elected president. All Americans can fervently hope and pray that when he takes office, he'll be a good and effective chief executive. We can also hope that the JFK-like detachment which, in the end is responsible for taking some of the bloom off Obama's rose, will dissipate and that a real man will step from behind the Kennedeyesque facade to become the leader the country needs.
In 2009, we don't need a president who emulates a ghost. We need a real person. My guess is that, if Obama can step out and become his real self, he can reconnect with those of his supporters who have become lukewarm and he can have an historic presidency.
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