Beware the JFK Analogy

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The Guardian/UK

Beware the JFK Analogy

As we approach Barack Obama's inauguration next Tuesday, and the first 100 days that follow, the comparisons between him and John (Jack) Kennedy that are already being made will multiply. In Europe, particularly, the Kennedy analogy is powerful. Many Europeans old enough to have experienced his brutally curtailed time in the White House are still in position as politicians or "opinion-formers", (myself included). For later generations in Europe a beguiling myth of the Kennedy era endures even as its survivors diminish.

The phrase "Camelot", which we will no doubt hear a lot of again as the media combs the names on next week's inaugural guestlists, was cheapened into celebrity shorthand long ago. But the reality which it seemed to represent was of a president who enjoyed the arts and respected intellectuals, and was even - like Obama - an intellectual himself. The similarities go well beyond that. Both men came to power in their mid-forties, tall, handsome, and vigorous, and offering dynamic change from their predecessors (in Eisenhower's case the perception of a fumbling laisser-faire fatigue, in Bush's a disastrous rightwing simplicity that played havoc with civil liberties).

Above all, both presidents looked like natural leaders with the charisma to carry millions with them. And heaven knows, there was then, and is now, a hunger for leadership both in the US and even more so in Europe. Kennedy won a slim election victory but gained swaths of enthusiastic new supporters among his compatriots with his inaugural speech. Obama easily defeated McCain, but during the campaign he found a bigger audience in Berlin than anywhere in the US. Had he chosen London, Paris, Rome, or Warsaw, the throng would have been just as huge.

Yet beware the Kennedy analogy. It is wrong in fact, as well as being a snare and a delusion. The differences between Kennedy and Obama are far more striking than the parallels. Kennedy was the arrogant and spoilt brat of a politically ambitious male chauvinist multi-millionaire father, who gave his four sons a patrician sense that they had a right to rule, and screw around when they felt like it. Admittedly, Jack Kennedy had to struggle against poor health throughout his life, but his personal battle cannot be compared to Obama's ability through merit and determination to surmount a peripatetic upbringing in an impoverished single-parent household for much of the time. Kennedy may have broken a glass ceiling as the first practising Roman Catholic to become president, but he did not see himself as a standard bearer for other Catholics. His breakthrough is as nothing compared to Obama's triumph in winning the White House as a black man, and a proud representative of all of America's non-Anglo minorities. In depth and scope his life experience far exceeds Kennedy's pampered youth.

It is true that Obama has made his first appointments largely from Harvard and other elite schools' "best and brightest", just as Kennedy did. In some ways Obama's are more traditional, since he has mainly picked people with a record of government service whereas Kennedy took unknowns such as Ted Sorensen and McGeorge Bundy. But the books the two men have written show that the only genuine intellectual, as well a writer of great sensitivity, is Obama. Kennedy was intelligent but in spite of all the Camelot trimmings he did not have the curiosity about ideas or the ability to view issues critically which define an intellectual.

Kennedy's most important aspect of Kennedy, of course, is his record in office. Here was a man who came to power with the complacent 1950's illusion that America's social and economic problems were largely solved. The only challenges lay abroad, with the threat of Soviet Communism and the danger that countries moving away from European colonial control would fail to "take off", as Kennedy's appalling academic guru Walt Rostow warned him. Kennedy won election largely on the basis of a fraud - the false charge of a "missile gap" which Eisenhower had allegedly permitted, leaving the USSR ahead of the US. Kennedy's inaugural was all about foreign affairs, and the only domestic reference (which was added at the last minute) was to say that America was committed to human rights "at home and around the world".

The black struggle for civil rights was already underway and the first Freedom Rides were to start four months after Kennedy became President, yet he seems to have been unaware of them. Later, when the movement became impossible to ignore, neither he nor his attorney-general brother Robert brought in significant reforms or legislation. They had the opportunity to appoint liberal federal judges, but failed. No wonder that the civil rights movement sang a sarcastic verse that went: There's a town in Mississippi called Liberty, there's a department in Washington called Justice.

Nevertheless, there is a danger that Obama himself may fall for the Kennedy myth. With power come flattery and self-regard. Will Obama realise that the world is very different from 1961? The belligerent missionary ideology which led Kennedy to invade Cuba and start military intervention in Vietnam has its counterpart in Bush's invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. Can Obama go beyond closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and give the whole place back to Cuba? Can he abandon the "war on terror", deal with security problems pragmatically and without dangerous rhetoric, and scale down, not up, in Afghanistan?

Obama, we are told, has been re-reading books on Lincoln. I would recommend he goes through a forgotten book called The Kennedy Promise, by the British commentator (and one-time Observer reporter) Henry Fairlie. Published in 1973 with the sub-title "The politics of expectation", it is a brilliant demolition of the frenetic Kennedy governing mystique of crisis management and group-think. It points out that the constant talk of "challenges" and the need for US leadership tend to encourage confrontation and war.

That warning is apposite today. In his acceptance speech in Chicago Obama already told us "a new dawn of American leadership is at hand". Let us hope phrases of this kind do not appear in his inaugural address. Yes, there are one or two foreign policy issues where the US has a unique ability to exert influence. Its relationship with Israel is the main one. There are other issues on which the US by virtue of its consumption patterns carries massive weight and can set a powerful example, such as global warming and energy policy.

On virtually every other issue the world has become multi-polar or even non-polar. Most disputes are best handled regionally by countries that are neighbours and have the main interest in avoiding conflicts which may lead to war. Outsiders should only intervene when clearly invited. A few issues, often the most pressing, are global, such as nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, climate change, fulfilling the UN millennium development goals, and the need to reduced economic imbalances between and within countries which result from unfair corporate practices and unregulated capital flows and are already leading to mass migrations not seen in the world until now. On these problems we don't need US leadership but a US that is willing to be a partner, and sometimes lets itself be led.

Jonathan Steele

Jonathan Steele is a Guardian columnist, roving foreign correspondent and author. He was the Guardian's bureau chief in Washington (1975 to 1979) and Moscow (1988 to 1994). In the 80s he reported from southern Africa, central America, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe. In the 90s he covered Kosovo and the Balkans. Since 9/11 he has reported from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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