Obama and JFK

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Scott Simon reflects on some less-obvious similarities between presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and President Kennedy.


I'm going to venture a little political analysis this morning. Many people have made comparisons between Senator Barack Obama, who has now won the Democratic presidential nomination, and John F. Kennedy. I don't find those comparisons wrong, just maybe a little rosy. I think there are similarities but not the ones many people think.

In death, John F. Kennedy became the image of the young, smart and charming chief executive that many Americans still hold as an ideal. But in life, Mr. Kennedy was elected by one of the smallest margins in U.S. history, one that could be even disputed today. He was not the candidate of youth or even his generation. Richard Nixon was just five years older and both served in World War II.

John Kennedy, it should be remembered, campaigned as a saber rattler, who would challenge the Soviet Union and Berlin, Cuba, in building more missiles. Nixon was the candidate who urged caution. Jack Kennedy was the candidate of big city bosses like Richard J. Daley, an old-line southern Democratic segregationist. Lyndon Johnson was demonstratively more supportive of civil rights.

The time he ran for president, John Kennedy had more experience in public office than Senator Obama, but Mr. Obama is the more accomplished orator. When John Kennedy was nominated for president in 1960, many found his speaking style flat and clipped. It wasn't considered as eloquent as Adlai Stevenson or Hubert Humphrey.

But I see both John Kennedy and Barack Obama as clear-eyed, cool-headed, unsentimental big city politicians. Many pundits have said Mr. Obama's campaign caught the tenure of the times, a desire for change. But Senator Clinton won almost just as many votes as a candidate of experience. I think the Obama campaign, schooled in big city ward politics, invested time and effort in caucuses, which gave them a string of victories. Senator Clinton relied on winning big state primaries and did, but couldn't overcome the semblance of a rising tide for Senator Obama.

He is a shrewd and deliberate politician, who will put an American flag lapel pin on, take it off and put one on again. In the rough and tumble of Chicago, he became an ally of the Daleys without alienating the Jacksons. He cut ties with unhelpful friends, including his pastor.

Both Senator Kennedy and Obama had to overcome bigotry about their religion or race, but you would rarely hear that from them. Part of that may be the humility of knowing they are the beneficiaries of progress in America. But shrewd politicians also know that their identity is part of their personal story and appeal. A politician makes unapologetic use of his or her identity just as they do being rich or handsome.

Barack Obama supporters see his nomination as opening a Kennedy-style new frontier, but it does not detract from his achievement to note that each man made history by playing old-school, big city politics.

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