Thursday, August 05, 2004

Channeling JFK 

I opened the print edition of "The Australian" this morning, and turned to the opinion page to find Robert Dallek's piece "What JFK can learn from JFK." The blurb, unfortunately only available in print, stated that "To beat George W Bush, John F Kerry should recall how John F Kennedy won his presidential election in 1960."

My God, I thought, Dallek is advising Kerry to get the Chicago Mob to steal the Illinois vote for him.

I shouldn't have feared, however. Dallek, JFK's most recent biographer, is merely advising John F Kerry on the matters of image and campaign performance. Some of it is pretty obvious ("The principal task of every presidential nominee running against an incumbent is to demonstrate that he is presidential timber."), some of it rather tenuous ("A unilateralism that has alienated countries and peoples across the world has not given Bush the kind of sure-handed hold on voters a president needs in a re-election campaign." The foreigners after all don't vote, and the American voters generally don't vote based on how the foreigners want them to), some of it merely partisan wishful thinking:

"Bush seems more the offspring of the 1964 Barry Goldwater than of his father, George H.W. Bush. Like Goldwater, who frightened voters by joking about lobbing one into the men's room of the Kremlin, Bush is perceived by many voters as untrustworthy if not reckless. By contrast with his father, whose quick victory in Kuwait and refusal to march on Baghdad is seen as a model of wise action, George W. has been thrown on the defensive about the war."
I also recall Ronald Reagan joking about bombing Russia, and Bush Sr's "model of wise action" left us in a position of having to repeat the whole exercise in much more difficult conditions twelve years later, but never mind. Some of Dallek's commentary, finally, mixes all sorts of political lessons:

"John F. Kerry will want to remember John F. Kennedy's successful presidential bid in 1960. Like Gore, Nixon was a well-established national figure as Dwight Eisenhower's vice-president. Like Kennedy, who carried potential negatives into the campaign -- his youth and inexperience, his religion, his undistinguished congressional record and unenviable caution in response to McCarthyism -- Kerry has to overcome questions about his capacity to speak to Americans in understandable ways and his alleged inconsistency as a senator or politician who speaks out of both sides of his mouth."
When all is said and done, the problem is that the JFK 2004 simply ain't the JFK 1960, however much he tries. The same initials, the association with Massachusetts, and the patrician lifestyle are no substitutes for substance. The "lessons" of 1960 (positivity, vision, communication) are not some magic potions that one can add to any candidate, stir, and come up with a winning formula. Character, personality and style do matter, and they can't be as easily spun as a single ten second grab on the nightly news.

Kennedy won in 1960 (and even them, only just) because he was a young, charismatic candidate running against a dull and shifty opponent. In that respect, Kerry is more similar to Nixon, another unexciting career politician who left the military service as a Lieutenant. But to compare Kerry to Nixon might be somewhat unfair to Nixon, who after all despite all his faults had a clearer vision of the America he wanted than does the Senator from Massachusetts (or maybe I'm wrong; maybe Kerry does have a clear vision, it's just that he's having problems communicating it to voters. Or maybe he thinks that the voters hate the incumbent so much that they don't care about any other vision except for a Bush-free White House).

In the end, the only JFK lesson that could well become relevant to Kerry is, the man from Texas might be your undoing.


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