Why Obama is No JFK
By Ted Widmer
John F. Kennedy is not running for anything in 2008, but you’d never know it. A front-page photo in the New York Times recently showed his electability in Serbia, of all places, where local candidates are vying to establish their credentials as the latest citizens of the New Frontier. Back in the U.S., no candidate has captured the reflected glory of JFK more than Barack Obama, thanks to his youth, eloquence, and message of change. The Kennedy-Obama parallel has been played up by the press, and Obama’s campaign has not discouraged those comparisons—indeed, it has brought in Ted Sorensen, JFK’s talented speechwriter, to make speeches and render the judgment of history.
But the comparison falls short when voters consider the key question for 2008: foreign policy experience. It’s true that Obama, like Kennedy, is a youngish senator (at 46, three years older than Kennedy when he ran for president), but the parallel falters after that. The more one looks into Kennedy’s lifelong preparation for the job, the more one realizes how misleading it was, then and now, to describe him as inexperienced. Everyone who has stressed Kennedy’s youth, from Dan Quayle in 1988 to Obama today, has bumped up against the uncomfortable fact that JFK was an extremely well-informed statesman in 1960. As Lloyd Bentsen reminded us in the zinger that pole-axed Quayle, the truth was a lot more complicated than the myth.
Kennedy, of course, was a decorated veteran of World War Two, which he fought in the South Pacific. But before and after the conflict, he had acquired travel experiences that most people take a lifetime to accumulate, richly detailed in biographies like Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life. His father was ambassador to the United Kingdom in the pivotal year 1938, and young Kennedy was in the audience of the House of Commons as the Munich deal was furiously debated (the experience shaped his first book, Why England Slept). As a young man, he made American officials uneasy with his relentless desire to see parts of Europe and the world that few Americans ever encountered. In 1939 alone, he took in the Soviet Union, Romania, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Greece, France, Germany, Italy and Czechoslovakia. As the war was ending, he attended the San Francisco conference that created the United Nations, filing seventeen dispatches for the Chicago Herald American.
He maintained this lively interest in world affairs as a young Congressman. In 1951 he went on two extraordinary journeys, the first a five-week trip to Europe, from England to Yugoslavia, to consider the military situation on the continent. Then, a few months later, a seven-week, 25,000-mile trek that included Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, French Indochina, Korea and Japan. It was this trip, in particular, that awakened a sense in him that the old colonial empires were doomed, and that the French effort to keep Vietnam was especially futile. In the aftermath of his trip, he gave speeches that ridiculed the French (and by extension, the American) position, and proved that he was no simplistic Cold Warrior. In 1957, he continued to chart a maverick’s course with a deeply-informed speech on Algeria that criticized France and the U.S. for trying to sustain an unsustainable conflict against an insurgent population. It infuriated both Democrats and Republicans, and France, a NATO ally at the time, was enraged—but obviously he was correct.
Critics and admirers alike have generally neglected the full extent of Kennedy’s early experience. But clearly it shaped him profoundly, and each journey deepened his portfolio. Further, each trip empowered him, and gave him the confidence to swim against the tide, a trait that would prove essential in the presidency. While dedicated to veterans and certain core principles of American defense, he also showed, well before his election, a growing skepticism of the extremes of Pentagon thinking. Perhaps most impressively, he found the courage to reject the knee-jerk isolationism of his most important backer—his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.
To be sure, even with all of that training, Kennedy showed inexperience during his early months in the White House, including the disastrous decision to invade Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, and his ineffective performance at his first summit with Khrushchev in Vienna. But he soon righted himself, and returned to the independent judgment that he had acquired during his long and literal journey toward the presidency.
Of course, travel does not instantly translate into electability—if it did, Geraldo Rivera might be president. But it’s an important consideration, especially for a candidate like Obama, who is running against an array of Democratic contenders (Biden, Dodd, Clinton, Richardson) who have far more first-hand experience dealing with issues of foreign policy and national security. And compared to Kennedy, Obama’s record of world travel is quite thin.
Like Kennedy, Obama did spend some time in his youth living in a foreign country. And because that country, Indonesia, is both Asian and majority Muslim, Obama can—and does—claim to have a unique perspective on a region and a religion that increasingly command Washington’s attention. But it’s worth noting the considerable differences between Obama’s and Kennedy’s overseas experiences. Kennedy lived in Europe, then the geo-strategic center of the world, as a footloose young man who had front-row seats at momentous diplomatic dramas, thanks to his ambassador father. Obama lived as a boy in Indonesia—a big, fascinating country, but not central to U.S. global strategy. If that childhood experience had a genuine impact beyond teaching him the obvious truth that the world is diverse, then he needs to make it clearer how he will translate that knowledge into sound policy.
As an adult prior to wining elective office, Kennedy continued to see the world, including from the helm of a PT boat. Obama’s campaign has implied that the candidate traveled extensively before assuming office, but so far has resisted appeals to provide further information. Given the prevalence of the Kennedy comparison, Obama’s travels have become relevant enough to be made public.
Like Kennedy, Obama has taken several long trips as a lawmaker—through the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. But there is one noteworthy gap in Obama’s itinerary: except for a brief stopover in London, returning from Russia in 2005, he has apparently never been to Western Europe since launching his political career. What renders this gap especially surprising is that Obama is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe. Not only has the Senator not visited the region his committee oversees, but as Steve Clemons of the Washington Note has observed, Obama’s committee has not held a single policy-oriented hearing since he’s been chairman. Europe may not be the central playing field it was in Kennedy’s day, but it remains essential to the global set of alliances and relationships that the U.S. needs to cultivate in the new century. In fact, there is no place where it will be more urgent to rebuild bridges. As Obama knows, the United States cannot do it alone—and Europe will need to play a supporting role in whatever strategy the next president articulates.
It is encouraging that Obama has several times displayed what his campaign calls independence, expressing his disapproval of the Iraq war in particular. But disapproving Iraq is not exactly independence—it is more or less the standard line on the left, and quite different from developing a nuanced third position, which was Kennedy’s strength in the 1950s, as he steered between the hand-wringing of Stevenson liberals and the mindless conservatism of many Democrats and Republicans on the right. It’s true that Obama threatened to bomb Pakistan, a position that most people on the left would find scary—but that is not the kind of measured solution, tough but practical, that most of us associate with JFK. In fact, it is a rather extraordinary lurch to the right, like an involuntary tic, that most on the right would actually disavow. It is difficult to see how a bombing run over Pakistan would do anything to help anyone except the very people it was designed to punish.
In an editorial supporting Obama, the Boston Globe called attention to his “intuitive sense of the wider world.” But “intuition” would have seemed a silly quality to JFK, a realist even among the realists of his day. He and the other veterans he had served with were tired of inflated promises and wanted a world that would live up to the sacrifice they had already made for it. Like Kennedy, Obama certainly has a capacity to learn, and learn quickly. But there are qualities that cannot be gleaned from briefing books, even by the quickest study—independence of judgment, calm determination, and the deep knowledge of all possibilities that comes from years of experience in the trenches. To his credit, Obama has not personally cited intuition as a reason to vote for him, but the campaign profited enormously from the Globe endorsement, and has tolerated a certain vagueness about his background and intentions that now needs to be clarified.
In fact, no modern politician has trafficked more in “intuition” than President Bush, who trumpeted his “instincts” to an incredulous Joe Biden as his justification for invading Iraq, and famously claimed to see into the soul of Vladimir Putin. To run entirely on intuition and the negation of experience can work, and did in 2000. But to do so while wearing the deeply realist mantle of John F. Kennedy is to spin a garment of such fine cloth that it is completely invisible.
Ted Widmer, Director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America America Foundation, and was a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton (1997-2000). His next book, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, will be published this summer.
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