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Obama, JFK, and 'A Sense of History'

Carol V. Hamilton

Quite a few pundits have compared Barack Obama to JFK, but not many have specified the terms of that resemblance. They include charisma, vigor, (relative) youth, wit, eloquence, intelligence, education, and grace under pressure. In combination, these are not ordinary qualities; they make a person, or a candidate, exceptional. Speed, strength, focus, a good eye, and quick reflexes are among the attributes of a natural athlete. A natural leader is more rare than a great athlete.

In one of the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates, Nixon was asked what he thought was the chief qualification for the presidency. "Experience," Eisenhower's vice-president predictably answered. JFK, who had recently been re-elected to a second term in the Senate, was asked the same question. "A sense of history," he responded. Nixon not only lost, but he also went on to give "experience" a bad name and to resign the presidency in disgrace.

Not many people remember Kennedy's remarkable answer to that debate question, but as Senator Clinton and Senator McCain tout their own "experience," we should remember that there are other qualifications for leadership. JFK talked about the importance of "vigor." Pundits praised the young president's "charisma." Charisma and vigor have been among the attributes of good leaders for thousands of years.

And we shouldn't regard youth as a drawback. When Alexander Hamilton and James Madison attended the Constitutional Convention and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, Madison was 36 and Hamilton was only 32. When Thomas Jefferson became the first Secretary of State, he was about Obama's age, 46.

The President of the United States is not only the head of the executive branch and the commander-in-chief, but also the American diplomat-in-chief. She or he is the face America presents to the rest of the world, the voice they hear when they listen to us on the nightly news, and the demeanor they mock or admire. Like Teddy Roosevelt, the American president occupies the "bully pulpit," exhorting us to be better citizens and better human beings. The American president represents rule by law, as opposed to a king or queen's rule by whim or fiat. Therefore, our president should uphold and respect the law and our Constitution.

For the past eight years, we have suffered through the regime of a president who has misused and abused his office. We've had a leader who speaks badly and carries a big stick; a man whose arrogance has alienated the rest of the world; a president who has taken this country deep into debt; an American who seems to care more about peace, infrastructure, freedom, and democracy in Iraq than in his own country. While the rest of the country worked too many hours for low pay, our president took naps, rode his mountain bike, cleared brush, had excellent medical care, and enjoyed long, frequent vacations. We've witnessed an administration that has abandoned any concern for American health and welfare in favor of lofty rhetoric about spreading democracy. We've listened in frustration as patriotic platitudes and fear-mongering have been used to manipulate public emotions. We've groaned as legislation has been given deceptive names - the Clean Air Act, the Patriot Act - to deceive citizens about legislation that benefits corporate bottom lines, not those Americans who breathe the air, pay the taxes, and fight the wars.

JFK wasn't a perfect president. Every president who has mattered historically has also been a disappointment in at least one major way. Therefore, we can't expect a perfect candidate, not when every word and deed, past and present, is subjected to the most critical scrutiny. Like our presidents, every candidate is bound to have a brother, friend, pastor, or close associate who has misbehaved or made unfortunate statements. But lack of perfection in a candidate is no grounds for cynicism.

We Americans can't hold anyone to impossible standards, but we can have reasonable expectations. We deserve a president who has the ability to represent our public face in its most honorable, dignified, thoughtful, and even charming fashion. We need a president who cares more about American citizens than about oil company profits. We deserve a president who selects the best-qualified candidates for high positions: not a family friend or a corporate ally; not a Spiro Agnew, a Dan Quayle, a Clarence Thomas, an Alberto Gonzales, a Harriet Myers, a Michael Chertoff, or a Michael Brown. We deserve a president who will instantly fire a Brownie when he doesn't do a heckuvajob and who is neither too afraid nor too indifferent to appear quickly at ground zero of a natural disaster like Katrina. We need a president who respects science and supports medical research for the public good. And we deserve a president who will not only listen, seriously and respectfully, to opposing or minority points of view but will also actively elicit these points of view.

We Americans need a break from past administrations: both the disastrous policies of George W. Bush, whom many historians consider our worst president ever, and the less recent past of the Clinton administration, with its policies of triangulation, compromise, and accommodation. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton are too entangled in recent policies, from the war in Iraq to Nafta and Gatt. The relative "inexperience" of Senator Obama represents, as the other, positive side of the coin, a break from our most recent misfortunes and bad decisions.

Natural leaders don't come around very often. Look over the list of American presidents at, and you'll see how rare a remarkable, iconic president is. Voters in the remaining primaries have the chance right now to show that we do have "a sense of history." Senator Specter appeared on the Charlie Rose show last week. Asked if Obama reminded him of JFK, he said, almost reluctantly, in a low voice, "I think he could be better."

Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Her articles and poems have been published in Oxford German Studies (England), the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, (Canada), The Paris Review, The North American Review, and many other literary and scholarly journals. She has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a number of alternative papers.

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