Obama and John Kennedy: A Personal Account

It has become fashionable to draw comparisons between President Barack Obama and the late John F. Kennedy. The bases of such comparisons are, of course, obvious. Both were young men in their 40s when they ran, both brought a level of vigor and excitement to national politics that was missing in the gray stolidness of the Eisenhower years and the lackadasical, incompetent Bush years. Both were relatively junior senators with no visible administrative experience but Harvard educational backgrounds. Both had stunning, highly visible wives and young, vivacious children. Both, of course, were Democrats.

The comparisons go a bit farther. Both men were accomplished writers (Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, Obama’s Audacity of Hope) who brought an intellectual excitement to office and who attracted the educated intelligentsia in their support. Both men had ambitious social agendas and faced the shadows of building asymmetrical wars in Asia. Both were also minorities: Obama as an Afro-American, Kennedy as a Catholic. Most Americans today were, of course, not alive when JFK ran for office and thus do not remember the bigotry based in religious affiliation that Kennedy’s Catholicism created, but it bears an eerie resemblance in retrospect to the clouds that hand over Obama today.

Both men faced opposition that was not officially racist in justification, even if religious/racial bigotry was not far below the surface. Obama is accused on being a “socialist,” even a “communist,” mostly by opponents with only a vague idea what those terms mean. As best I can tell, most of the opposition arises from economic motives (the Democrats’ attempt to reinstitute something like progressive taxation and to reverse welfare capitalism–subsidizing the rich) and purely partisan politics based in “values”. In Kennedy’s days, and especially in the South, JFK was assailed for pushing civil rights legislation that, of course, made Obama’s presidency possible.

The heat and rhetoric are especially vituperative and open today. Part of that is the result of a far less civil political process than was formerly the case, and part of it is the emergence of virulent anti-journalism in the mass media. The media’s insatiable 24/7 need for “news” means that everything, including the most insignificant and scurrilous of items, is given wide publicity that once would not have seen the light of print or visual image. Today’s news cycle has been lit up by three days about a nutty “scientist” from Ft. Collins, Colorado, and his son’s suspected ride on his “flying saucer.” By contrast, when Rep. Wilbur Mills went swimming with Annabella Bellastella–aka Fanny Foxe–in the Washington Mall’s reflecting pool in the late 1950s, it was hardly more than a day’s news.

This scrutiny of public life, particularly as it affects the presidency, seems to me to have come to a head in the flap over President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize award. The merits of his winning the award are essentially beside the point: I personally view it as the outcome of a bad year for peace and thus peace recipients. What is notable, however, is the brouhaha the whole thing has created. The Nobel committee chooses Obama, and Obama is vilified for it having occurred. Why? Because the award was (apparently intentionally) partly the result of a desire to draw invidious comparisons between the present president and his predecessor, who was never in danger of getting a Nobel for anything. Did Obama have something to do with this? Not so anyone can tell. Does that matter? Like the cartoon of the old Confederate soldier with the stars and bars over his shoulder, “Hell, no!” This would be pathetic if it did not appear to reflect deep-seated feelings of so many people.

Here the personal part comes in. I am appalled by the incivility, even nastiness and unfairness of the shrillest parts of the criticisms of Obama, and I suspect that most of the adjectives used (e.g. communist, socialist) are veiled ways of voicing underlying racist sentiments. This is what most troubles me, but I know it is nothing new. John Kennedy faced the same thing in the early 1960s, and it was just as pernicious. The rants then were about ending segregation,but underlying them was a hint of anti-Catholicism that could not always be winnowed out of the critiques. It was just as nasty and mean then.

I am reminded of a deeply personal experience that has, quite obviously, lingered in my mind for a long time. In the summer of 1963, my cousin and I (both undergraduate students at the University of Alabama–I was a transient student) attended a motion picture at the old Druid City theater in Tuscaloosa. The fare that evening was a non-memorable patriotic movie called “A Gathering of Eagles,” starring a Rock Hudson not yet out of the closet. In one scene, Hudson, portraying an Air Force colonel, is seated at his desk. Behind him is a picture of the president of the United States–John Kennedy. When the camera panned to Hudson and showed the JFK photograph behind him, a portion of the audience booed. I had never heard anything like that before then, and I was appalled. I could hardly wait for the summer term to end, so I could go back to my alma mater (the University of Colorado).

One gets over such things, but you never forget. John Kennedy created feelings of great passion in both directions, as does Obama. Kennedy was, in some quarters, treated inconscionably, as is Obama. Kennedy has been rehabilitated and is now remembered heroically; Obama probably will be sometime in the future. It is, however, hard to experience when the vituperation is so loud.

One does, however, put memories behind and move forward. In my case, I was back in Tuscaloosa as a newly minted PhD and assistant professor at the same University of Alabama in the fall of 1969. UA had changed (the first thing I remember seeing on arriving on campus was a black student in an Aalabama sweatshirt.), and so will these times. At least I hope so.

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