Recently, Hillary Clinton caught a bit of flak after comparing herself to President Kennedy. Other candidates have also made comparisons, and it occurred to me that it might be entertaining to take a look at some aspects of our 35th president — and which current candidates might best embody them.
Of course, I’m no Kennedy scholar (after all, I was born almost four years after he died), but I’ve read a bit about the man, so I figure why not?
Religion: Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. At that time, there was a great deal of anti-Catholic bigotry. Kennedy not only overcame that, but managed to turn it to his advantage, making a vote for him a vote against prejudice.
This time around, one candidate stands out as a member of a faith looked down upon by many. Mitt Romney looks to be the first Mormon to serve as president. If anyone can bring Mormonism more into the mainstream of American culture, it won’t be Harry Reid.
It also occurs to me that Romney is probably a better Mormon than Kennedy was a Catholic, but I am getting a bit out of my element on that one.
Appearance: Kennedy was a remarkably handsome man. (This is even more out of my fields of expertise than comparative theology, so if any distaff or “don’t ask/don’t tell” readers would like to disagree, I’ll cheerfully defer to them.) There are no shortages of good-looking candidates, but John Edwards is too “pretty.” Again, I have to give the nod to Romney.
Charisma: There was something magnetic about Kennedy. People liked him, wanted to follow him, wanted to be around him. The only candidate with anywhere near that level of appeal would have to be Barack Obama.
Military background: John Kennedy was a decorated war hero who bore the scars of battle to his dying day. Only one candidate even comes close to that standard — and, it can be argued, surpasses it: John McCain.
Senatorial experience: JFK was a senator for eight years before being elected president. But Kennedy had previously spent six years in the House of Representatives, as well as a military background and the advantage of being the son of an ambassador. While John Edwards (one full term, didn’t run for re-election when polls showed he’d lose) and Barack Obama (first six-year term will end in 2010) might cite their own experience with Kennedy’s, the one who can claim that with the greatest accuracy is Hillary Clinton — who served eight years as First Lady and would have eight years of Senate service under her belt if she were to be elected.
Spouse: Jacqueline Kennedy was much beloved by the nation — indeed, the world — and one of JFK’s greatest assets. Bill Clinton is far more polarizing, but there’s no denying his popularity — and his role as one of Hillary’s greatest assets (and liabilities — see below).
Overbearing male relative seen by some as the “power behind the throne:” Jack Kennedy’s father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, was one of the most admired, feared, and reviled figures in American politics for decades. Many worried that he would use his son as a proxy to further his own ambitions. This is the flip side of Bill Clinton’s value to his wife’s campaign. He’s pretty much as loathed as he is loved.
Intellect: John Kennedy was seen as a scholar of history, a “deep thinker” as well as his other attributes. Among the current flock of candidates and would-be candidates, only one stands out as a scholar: Newt Gingrich.
Sexual peccadilloes: John Kennedy was, to be blunt, a hound. His frequent, habitual infidelities were cheerfully covered by his sycophants in the Press Corps. While other candidates have their own indiscretions, one of them stands (so to speak) head (again, so to speak) and shoulders above the rest, with three marriages, numerous affairs, and even serving one wife with divorce papers while she was hospitalized with cancer: Newt Gingrich again.
Military policy: Kennedy won election based, partly, on his hawkish views. For heaven’s sake, he managed to be more anti-Communist than that old Red-baiter, Tricky Dick Nixon. While no candidate comes across as anywhere near as strong on that front, only one can claim to have actual experience with fighting terrorism — and seeing up close and personal just what is at stake: Rudy Guiliani.
Economic policy: I’m even further out of my field on this one than when I was discussing relative attactiveness of men and comparative theology, so I’ll just give this one a pass and let others tackle it — if they wish.
Political machine: The Kennedy machine was one of the greatest political forces this nation has ever seen, but it saw its peak in 1960. It is still a very, very potent force in Massachusetts and other parts of New England, but it hasn’t really been a national force in about 27 years.
During the 1990’s, Bill Clinton did everything he could to become a “foster Kennedy.” In that process, he managed to assimilate a great deal of the Kennedy machine’s national power into his own — and he’s kept a pretty good grip on that. He’s currently putting that fully behind his wife’s campaign.
So, can any single candidate honestly claim to be the “heir” of John Fitzgerald Kennedy? I think not. Historical figures tend to be larger than life, and martyrs even more so. His legacy has grown to mythic proportions, and that’s simply too big for any one person to shoulder.
Especially with the 24/7 news cycle and information explosion, which tends to dig until it finds — or manufactures — feet of clay to put on our public figures.
Hell, I don’t think that even Jack Kennedy could be another Jack Kennedy today.