Business Times - 05 Mar 2008
Good candidate = good president?
Veteran of Washington politics points to JFK to say Obama's ambitious and sometimes vague promises won't be fulfilled
By LEON HADAR
ONE member of the gym where I work out is a 68-year-old veteran of Washington politics. He had been active for more than 50 years in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, going back to the administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK).
Tom V marched in the civil rights demonstrations in the South, was later involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and was one of the early supporters of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.
He was devastated by the assassination of Martin Luther King (MLK) and Robert Kennedy (RFK) in 1968 and was dispirited by the rise of America's political right in the 1980s. He was also disappointed by what he considered to be president Bill Clinton's failure to promote a more 'progressive' agenda in the 1990s.
So when I ran into him running (well, walking actually, at his age . . .) on the treadmill and watching CNN news on the small television monitor in front, I wondered whether the prospect of Barack Obama, who has been compared to MLK and RFK and has been lionised by the current crop of anti-war and civil rights activists, being elected president has buoyed his political spirits.
After all, the notion that a young African-American figure with an exotic name running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party - and might even have a chance of occupying the White House - would have sounded, in the 1960s, like a plot straight out of an Utopian novel.
Isn't Barack Obama a dream-come-true for you, I inquired.
To my surprise, the former progressive activist was exhibiting some peculiar conservative tendencies when discussing the current Obamania.
Tom recalled the election of JFK in 1960. It was celebrated by the young men and women who had come of age during World War II as the handover of the political torch from the heads of an old and tired establishment to a member of their generation, a young and 'cool' guy who promised to bring 'change' at home and abroad - addressing social and economic inequalities in the US and expanding the frontiers of liberty abroad.
'Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,' Kennedy declared in his fiery inaugural address that created the expectation that America and the world were being born anew, that from now on, things would never be the same.
There is no doubt that JFK and First Lady Jacqueline (Jackie) Kennedy embodied the essential elements of cool and helped usher a dramatic change in tone and style that influenced culture and fashion.
Hence, Kennedy triggered a precipitous decline in the sale of men's hats after he delivered his 1961 inaugural address hatless. But contrary to the prevailing legend, Kennedy wasn't a great president like, say, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
His inexperience and incompetence helped propel the US into a series of dangerous international crises, including the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. He deepened American military intervention in South-east Asia. His contribution to advancing the civil rights agenda was quite limited.
In a way, the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 may have contributed to the myth that Americans had lost a president who could have changed their country and the world - if only he had served his full term in office.
Much of the restlessness in American politics in the 1960s that had later degenerated into violent political divisions over Vietnam, race issues and corruption in Washington were triggered in part by the momentum for change that JFK had initiated, and that his brother Robert, reignited later on.
'The greater the expectations were, the greater the disillusions that Americans experienced at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s,' Tom concluded. As he recounted the political journey his generation had made since that era, he compared it to the current wild enthusiasm now, with which young Americans are welcoming another young presidential candidate, with star qualities similar to those of JFK, RFK and MLK.
'Supporters of Obama and the media have all been reading into him what they want to see rather than what he is all about,' Tom argued.
He doesn't doubt Obama's commitment to real change and is hopeful that if elected as president, Obama will bring about an important change in tone and style that could have a positive impact on the role of the presidency at home and on the image of America abroad.
However, the ambitious and sometimes vague promises to 'change' the way Washington works, by weakening the power of the 'lobbyists' are probably not going to be fulfilled and that is bound to create a lot of frustration among voters.
Moreover, the programmes that Obama (and Hillary Clinton) are promoting, such as the creation of a new federal healthcare system will face powerful opposition. Realistically, that will take years to get off the ground, and will require huge financial investment.
As Tom puts it: 'The reality of an Obama presidency would look very different than the passionate oratory of his campaign. A lot of people are going to feel that they were let down if US troops would not be returning from Iraq as promised. And I can tell you, based on my experience, waking up from a wonderful political dream can be quite traumatic.'
Wise words indeed.
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