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).

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.

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

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.

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