Monday, January 28, 2008

Kennedys Contra Clintons

Later today (Jan. 28) at American University, where JFK launched the Peace Corps (as in “ask not what your country can do for you…”), Ted Kennedy will endorse Barack Obama. According to press reports, he was at first going to be neutral. Then, last week, Bill Clinton’s over the top campaigning for Hillary crossed a line, forcing him off the fence. One would think that Clinton’s role in killing more people through sanctions than have died (so far) from WMDs (including the atomic bombs dropped by that other Democratic icon, Harry Truman) would be reason enough to oppose a Clinton Restoration, but apparently it took Clinton’s “fairy tale” remark to bring Kennedy on board for Obama. The conventional wisdom conveyed this morning on NPR -- the authoritative source of conventional wisdom, especially on Monday mornings, when Cokie Roberts presents her views – is that Kennedy’s endorsement will hurt Hillary. If so, his sense of proportion notwithstanding, more power to Ted.

Today’s speech will follow by a day Caroline Kennedy’s op ed endorsement of Obama in The New York Times. Obama, she wrote, “will inspire a new generation of Americans,” like her father did. It’s true; JFK did “inspire” many young people to focus on public affairs – even to the point of contributing, inadvertently, to the rise of the New Left. This is one of the ironies of history, inasmuch as JFK was anything but a man of the Left. He presided over countless imperialist adventures (including the Bay of Pigs and the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem) and brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe (during the Cuban missile crisis). He also launched the Vietnam War. Though he is remembered as a brave warrior for civil rights, in reality he only went along with the civil rights movement when and insofar as he could not do otherwise. His other domestic policy achievements were nil. Like Ronald Reagan two decades later, he did “stimulate” the economy by cutting taxes for the rich. But he left few other enduring legacies. In short, had he not been assassinated, neither his looks nor his wit would have saved his reputation. Another President like Caroline’s father is the last thing we need (except perhaps another President like Chelsea’s father or, worse still, like Jenna and Barb’s). In fairness to Caroline, though, she did not identify Obama’s politics with her father’s. She only claimed that Obama was inspiring like her father was.

Politically, Bobby Kennedy was even worse than his brother until the months before his assassination when he transformed himself into a genuine progressive. The contemporary aspirant to the Democratic nomination who most resembles him in this respect is not Obama; it is John Edwards. This is a model worth endorsing, though it’s unlikely any of Bobby’s children will make the case. To the best of my knowledge, none of them are Edwards supporters. And, of course, they don’t have access to the media like Caroline does. Still, it is worth noting that, like RFK’s, Edwards’ politics evolved leftward rather abruptly. When the “liberal media” isn’t ignoring the Edwards campaign, they trot out pundits to note his transformation and conclude, on this basis, that he must be a phony. A Kennedy in the 1960s was not so easily ignored. But RFK was largely spared sneering comments about his genuiness because, like his brother, he died too soon, becoming a martyr of whom the corporate and corporate friendly media dare not speak ill. However if, as Caroline Kennedy suggests, inspiration is all, then better to be inspired by someone more like her uncle than her father – better to support Edwards than Obama.

Leaving inspiration aside, it would even be better to support someone more like her other uncle – someone like, say, Chris Dodd, a good old-fashioned liberal. The most consistently liberal of the Kennedy brothers is and always has been Ted. Had he defeated Jimmy Carter in the contest for the 1980 Democratic nomination, who knows how much better off the world would now be. Not only would the US probably have been spared Ronald Reagan (and the Bush family), but the miserable trajectory of American liberalism since 1980 would have been quite different. The easily inspired clueless have it backwards: “all things considered,” Ted was (and still is) the best Kennedy brother and John the worst. [It’s hard to factor Bobby into the ranking since, for most of his life, he was as bad or badder than any of them, but then, briefly at the end, far better.] Since most of “the youth” Obama inspires have no notion of what any of the Kennedys were about, Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama, however poorly reasoned, may do some good, just as her uncle’s endorsement might – by making the prospect of an outright Clinton Restoration more remote.

There’s something else that bears mention that Caroline got wrong. She writes: “We need a change in the leadership of this country – just as we did in 1960.” We do indeed need a change in leadership, a much more profound change than Obama is likely to provide. But leaving that aside, the “change” we need is orders of magnitude different from what was needed in 1960. George W. Bush is the worst American President ever; at least if harm done is the standard. But Eisenhower was, if anything, the best (least bad) of the whole sorry lot since FDR. This is not the place to make the case for that proposition, so let me just assert that Ike bested JFK on all points except one -- “inspiration” – and that this hardly outweighs the rest. That Ike also bested Bill Clinton is clear as can be.

Finally, since Caroline Kennedy has injected her family into the primary contest, there is a comment I cannot forbear from making. JFK’s presidency, though “inspiring,” was very bad news. Her mother was another story. If only Caroline had used her access to the media to argue for “a First Lady like [her] mother” instead of “a President like [her] father,” she would have done much more good than she has by intervening into the Obama v. Clinton contest. Then she might have helped break the de facto embargo on news of Dennis Kucinich, whose views on all “the issues” are far superior to Obama’s and Clinton’s, and even Edwards’. Since Jackie, there has never been even a remote prospect of a First Lady anywhere near as hot as Elizabeth Kucinich. In a world where, as Caroline says, the (other) “candidates’ goals are similar,” that should count for something.


Mitchell J. Freedman said...


As usual, I find we track almost completely. One quibble: RFK, in the period of 1964-1968, did have to face corporate media pundits and political "insiders" who found RFK's transformation to a progressive vision as lacking sincerity. Gore Vidal said that to me a couple of years ago when I brought up the subject. He said he "never" found RFK "sincere" or "genuine" (I forget which word he used right now...).

Still, I think that the year 1968 was itself transformative, and as the primary season wore on, up to the night of California's primary on June 4, 1968, RFK was convincing more and more people he really was genuine. To take an example of the latter, Bob Scheer felt, after interviewing RFK, that RFK was very genuine. Bob Scheer thought him a mere "liberal," but still genuine.

Also, most of the black leadership in the US had become convinced, at least as of 1966, that RFK was genuine, and of course, Cesar Chavez and his followers were true believers in RFK by the end of 1967.

Russell said...

JFK launched the Peace Corps in Michigan. NPR had to run a correction for saying he did it at AU so they could run the "same place where JFK launched the Peace Corps" line for where Teddy jumped on Barack's coattails. Instance #371 of media bias toward Barack.

Live by the press, die by the press. Barack's days in the presidential limelight are numbered this election season. A good next step for him will be to finally hold a hearing as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and find a real leadership foothold.