by Kitty Kelley
When Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barak Obama in 2008 as her father’s rightful heir she laid upon him the mantle of Camelot, and the enduring mystique of John F. Kennedy, who, according to polls, continues to be America’s most beloved president. Comparisons between the 35th and 44th presidents have been inevitable, and while there are striking similarities between the two men, there are also distinguishing differences.
Both rose to the nation’s highest office as junior U.S. Senators with scant legislative achievements to their credit. The man from Massachusetts served three terms in the House of Representatives before he won his Senate seat in 1952 and began campaigning for national office, running for Vice President in 1956 and for President in 1960. Obama, a state legislator in Illinois for seven years, began his run for the White House shortly after being elected to the Senate. Both men broke the barriers of bigotry to reach the highest office in the land–Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic; Obama as the first African American.
Erudite Ivy Leaguers, each seemed blessed with the gift of prose. Kennedy wrote three books, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage; Obama made millions writing his best-selling memoir, Dreams from My Father. As a Boston scion and Harvard graduate, JFK. always smarted at being rejected for a seat on the Harvard Board of Overseers; Obama left Harvard with the distinction of having been the first person of color to be elected president of the Harvard Law Review.
Both men possessed extraordinary talents for oratory and inspired their generations with the poetry of hope–“the thing,” Emily Dickinson described, “with feathers that perches in the soul.” Their messages resounded for a nation grown restless after eight years of a Republican administration. Each man came to the presidency with their party in control of Congress, and each used that power to effect sweeping change. Kennedy introduced the most comprehensive and far-reaching civil rights bill, which was not passed on his watch, but became law under his successor. Obama signed the Affordable Care Act of 2010 which reformed health care to provide insurance for all Americans. Kennedy ordered federal departments and agencies to end discrimination against women in appointments and promotions; Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act to provide fair pay in the work place. In addition, he succeeded in getting a measure passed to end discrimination against gays in the military.
Both Kennedy and Obama exuded a dash of glamour in their roles as Commander-in-Chief and became the darlings of Hollywood. As President, each brought to the White House a fashionable and accomplished First Lady, two adorable young children, and scene-stealing pets. Yet as beloved as each became, both men stirred ferocious passions and dangerous threats from extremists who accused them of treason.
As notable as their similarities are the differences which define and separate them. Kennedy grew up with immense wealth and the high expectations and powerful connections of his father, the former Ambassador to the Court of St. James, who was the 14th richest man in America in 1960, worth more than $400 million. Obama, a fatherless child, forged his way on the wings of a single working mother, who wandered the world and left her son to the loving care of her parents. As a young man he borrowed thousands of dollars to finance his education and was not able to repay his student loans until he was 43 years old.
Both elusive men, Kennedy and Obama cared mightily about their public image, not an insignificant concern for politicians. Kennedy, who worried about being portrayed as a rich man’s dilettante son, would not allow photographs inside Air Force One, saying it would look like a playboy’s luxury. Obama made sure cameras never caught him smoking cigarettes. Each understood the mesmerizing power of appearances and knew as the actor Melvyn Douglas says in the film Hud, “Little by little the look of the country changes just by looking at the men we admire.”
Both presidents tangled with corporate America and drew the ire of big business. Kennedy blasted the steel industry in 1962, saying their price increase was “unjustifiable and irresponsible.” Obama, a community organizer, championed the middle class, challenging Wall Street when he enacted financial regulatory reform, and demanded that the richest Americans to pay their full share of taxes.
Each had to find his way through military quagmires left by their predecessors. Kennedy was haunted by the Bay of Pigs invasion but carried the country through the Cuban Missile crisis. He later increased the number of US military advisers to South Vietnam to more than 16,000. Obama came to the White House determined to end the Iraq War which he did by December 2011. After sending 33,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan as part of a strategy to downsize the American commitment there, he vowed to end that war by 2014.
Politically, both men made judicious choices in their running mates, but Kennedy never gave Lyndon Baines Johnson the full partnership that Obama accorded to Joe Biden.
Kennedy left behind the Peace Corps, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the promise of a man on the moon within the decade. Obama’s legacy must be left to the historians of tomorrow but at the dawn of his second term, following an inauguration that coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s last year in office, it is reassuring to believe that each man dedicated his presidency to setting the country’s course true north.
(Photo: President Barack Obama looks at a portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler, taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza)
Cross-posted from Huffington Post
by Kitty Kelley
John F. Kennedy continues to reign as the most popular president of the twentieth century, according to recent Gallup polls. (Richard Nixon and George W. Bush remain the most unpopular). Most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln was the most important man to ever occupy the White House because he abolished slavery and kept the states united through a bloody civil war. Yet for most Americans, Kennedy, whose presidential accomplishments were slight, continues to glisten like a shamrock after a spring rain.
For those alive in 1963 this month casts a shadow of sadness as we recall where we were on November 22 when we heard about the president’s assassination. We remember the weekend binge of television coverage — the stalwart widow in her black veil, the riderless horse, the little boy’s salute to his father’s coffin and the eternal flame, which draws over 500,000 visitors a year to Arlington National Cemetery.
Beginning last year we mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy administration — the thousand days which J.F.K. defined as the New Frontier, a time when he said the torch was passed to a new generation. We were told to ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country, and he showed us how by establishing the Peace Corps so Americans could do something positive and lasting. Since 1961 more than 210,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries.
Yet it is for something far less tangible that John F. Kennedy continues to be revered. Elected fifteen years after the end of WWII, he captured the spirit of those times. He radiated the excitement of change and the optimism of expectation. He broke the barriers of religious bigotry by becoming the first Catholic to be elected president, thereby making us believe that anything was possible, even sending a man to the moon and back within a decade. He moved further than his predecessors on civil rights by declaring that equality under the law was a moral issue “as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution.” He believed in horizons without limits. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings,” he said, speaking about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was signed in August 1963.
John F. Kennedy brought style and charisma to the White House and a first family that captivated the country: a handsome, witty president, an elegant first lady, and two adorable young children. While his image was later tarnished by revelations of marital infidelity and reckless behavior, polls show that he still holds the public in thrall. Herbert Parmet, one of his many biographers, claimed he was nothing but glamour and gloss, and dismissed him as an “interim president who had promised but not performed.” Yet there is no way to diminish the nation’s nostalgia for this man who was felled in his prime, and became an enduring legend. No other president has left a larger footprint on his country than John F. Kennedy, who to date is honored by 149 institutions which carry his name — schools, hospitals, clinics, concert halls, arts centers and an international airport, proving perhaps that promise is as inspiring as performance.
Photos © Estate of Stanley Tretick, LLC, used with permission.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post