Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Actual Results May Vary

Barak Obama got the Kennedy Prize yesterday, endorsements by that family’s most illustrious members and a symbolic bestowing of the Kennedy mantle. With that mantle comes the promise and vigor of the late President Kennedy. It’s a good theme to peddle in an election, especially to a nation desperate for leadership and change. The fresh, young face and new direction are hopes that turn elections.

But if Obama gets the Kennedy mantle, he also inherits the Kennedy reality, a pretty thin record of accomplishment that verged on the brink of nuclear war and further committed the United States to the Vietnam War. He stumbled badly in his first year. The Bay of Pigs damaged his credibility (he should have called it off immediately upon learning of the operation) and he looked weak against a bullying Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna later that year. Kennedy’s “weakness” is often cited as one reason the Soviets thought they could get away with installing missiles in Cuba. Kennedy, to his credit, was able to pull the nation back from the nuclear confrontation that resulted from that miscalculation. A more “experienced” president might have avoided the whole affair. Within a year, however, Kennedy was able to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy, like Obama today, was called inexperienced. Yet Kennedy had 14 years in Congress, eight in the Senate, when he ran for president. Kennedy was a combat veteran. His lack of experience was that he was not an intellectual leader like Adlai Stevenson or a legislative workhorse like Lyndon Johnson, two rivals for the nomination. He was seen as a usurper who was using his wealth and privilege to buy his way to the top. It showed most in his first two years. In the third year he was dead.

Experience is a relative term although it can be quantified in time. Experiences can yield different lessons under different circumstances; the numbers may not reflect the depth and intensity of life experience. A senator with Obama’s tenure would not have been considered a serious candidate in 1960. A senator who would be considered fairly experienced by today’s standards spent two very difficult years as president and was still cautious in his actions when he died in his third year.

Right now, Obama can bask in the Kennedy Legend. That’s mostly hype and hope, good for rallying the troops. And it may work. Obama is new and shiny. Clinton is old and dull. That strengthens him against Clinton’s traditional campaign, allowing him to carve into her support. A good electoral strategy. People are getting excited.



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