The Black John F. Kennedy

Watching the pundits and mavens of the mainstream press fawn over Sen. Barak Obama is reminiscent of watching a bunch of pre-pubescent teenagers go hysterical at the sight of Elvis or the Beatles. It is irrational and amusing at the same time.

They ascribe characteristics and accomplishments to Obama that are nothing short of ludicrous — women feinting, the lame walking and the blind seeing. This intelligent and very serious man is going to have trouble living up to the legend, and thus the expectations, being created for him. For most of it, a good sense of humor on Obama’s part will mitigate that tendency of “rock stars” to believe their own press.

But there is one disturbing comparison that is most unsettling and, in the end, can be most destructive. That is the comparison of Obama to Pres. John F. Kennedy — I mean the real John F. Kennedy, not the legends created by Pierre Salinger, Scotty Reston and Arthur Schlesinger. Don’t get me wrong, there is a heroism about Kennedy that cannot be denied. He was a World War II hero whose boat was torpedoed and who rallied his men to survive in a hostile sea. In the end he gave his life for his country when Lee Harvey Oswald ruthlessly gunned him down in Dallas and for that he joins Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley as men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

But for those of us who were actually alive during the Kennedy years, the myths of John F. Kennedy bear little relationship to actuality. At best he was a handsome leader with a beautiful wife who brought attention, style and glitter to a White House that had suffered the stress of a world war under Roosevelt and Truman and the dowdiness of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. But Kennedy had a remarkable succession of international failures including the commencement of America’s involvement in Viet Nam, the Bay of Pigs, and the Berlin Crises. Even Kennedy’s greatest moment, the confrontation of the Soviet Union over the placement of missiles in Cuba, was precipitated by a generally acknowledged perception of weakness by the international community. The fact that the Soviet Union felt emboldened to place missiles twenty six miles off our shores was a testament to Kennedy’s foreign policy weakness.

On the domestic front, the lone significant accomplishment was the introduction of tax cuts to stimulate the economy, the last time a Democrat president advocated the use of this repeatedly successful methodology. It was not Kennedy that spurred the Civil Rights Act, rather it was Martin Luther King, Jr., who shamed President Lyndon Johnson into embracing the concept of equality without regard to race. Yes, John Kennedy spoke of reaching the moon after being embarrassed by the initial successes of the Soviet Union in the exploration of outer space. But it was a succession of presidents after Kennedy that actually succeeded in recapturing and holding the lead in interstellar exploration. It was not Kennedy that launched the war on poverty, rather it was Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society programs. (It should be noted that after forty years and billions of dollars, the level of poverty in America remains virtually unchanged.)

On a personal level Kennedy was one of the most prolific womanizers ever to hold public office. The Secret Service served as a taxi service for the parade of women — starlets, debutantes, female reporters, bored wives, and hookers — that Kennedy bedded. (For some reason I can’t see Michelle Obama remaining silent about such things as did Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.) The compliant press turned a blind eye to his dalliances, just as they turned a blind eye to his deteriorating physical condition and use of pain killers for a back injured during the sinking of the PT-109.

Kennedy introduced the secret taping of White House conversation — a practice that eventually brought down Richard Nixon. He authorized domestic surveillance of civil rights figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. And he knuckled under to the threats of J. Edgar Hoover who routinely used the Federal Bureau of Investigation as his own personal character assassination machine.

Barak Obama is a serious man. Surely he and those who support him, should aspire to something greater than a very flawed man whose legend exceeds his meager accomplishments.