War Stories

Forget FDR and Lincoln; Obama Is Most Like JFK

It’s not just their biographies—it’s also the tenor of their times.

John F. Kennedy 

Inauguration Day brings out the historian in everyone, and the ascension of Barack Obama has spurred debates over which president of other crisis-drenched eras he most resembles. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt are the main contenders. But let me put in a word for a more obvious parallel, the one that came to most people’s minds when Obama first hit the scene: John F. Kennedy.

The Kennedy model lost favor as the financial crisis took hold (evoking FDR’s first 1,000 days in the Depression) and as Obama recruited former opponents to his Cabinet (emulating Lincoln’s “team of rivals”). But the JFK comparisons also dwindled, I suspect, because they seemed too obvious—both men being young, glamorous outsiders and masters of lofty speechmaking.

But the obvious should never be overlooked. And besides, the Kennedy-Obama parallels are, in fact, deeper than they might seem.

In 1960, Norman Mailer wrote an article about Kennedy for Esquire magazine called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” Americans, he observed, had long led “a double life.” There was the surface history of politics—”concrete, factual, practical, and unbelievably dull.” And there was “a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires” that made up “the dream life of the nation.”

In the vapid Eisenhower years, he went on, the “life of politics and the life of myth had diverged too far.” Americans needed “a hero central to his time,” a leader who could capture their “secret imagination” and re-engage “the myth of the nation” with its “pioneer lust for the unexpected and incalculable.” Kennedy was that hero, the “matinee idol” in an age of movie-star heroes who spoke of a “New Frontier” of “unknown opportunities and perils.”

Mailer recognized that the country was divided, almost evenly. Not everyone wanted this kind of hero. Many wanted to step back from this frontier, even to indulge in a countermyth of simpler times, small towns, and provincial values, when categories were stark and choices seemed clear. It was a clash of myths that would define much of American politics for decades to come—not least in our own recent election—and the question Mailer posed was whether a majority of voters would choose the man of glamour and mystery who would intensify the myth of frontiers or the odorless company man who would bask in terrain complacently occupied.

Sound familiar? There’s something of this chasm between Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the contest of Obama vs. John McCain.

Obama seems to grasp the connection. In his weekly YouTube addresses, he has placed three leather-bound books just behind him and to his right. Take a close look. They’re the three-volume edition of The Public Papers of John F. Kennedy. Clearly this is a man who understands iconography.

But it’s not just Obama, the man or the image, that resonates with Kennedy; it’s also the tenor of their times. The years leading up to JFK’s presidency were as fraught with excitement and danger as our own era, and for many of the same sorts of reasons.

The late 1950s saw the beginning of the jet age, the space race, and a slew of technological breakthroughs—the microchip, the business computer, and the birth-control pill, to name a few—that drastically expanded the possibilities of modern life.

At the end of that decade of torpor and conformity, there was suddenly a sense of a new dawn. A feeling took hold that the breakdown of barriers in space, speed, and time made other barriers ripe for transgressing—in civil rights, politics, the arts, and pop culture. And a mass audience emerged—aided by the rapid proliferation of televisions and pocket radios—that was receptive to the rebellion.

But the New Frontier had its dark side. Along with rockets and jets came missiles and H-bombs, and the fear (mistaken, as it turned out) that the Russians were ahead across the board. Global power was dispersing, with Castro’s revolution in Cuba; the “nonaligned” conference at Bandung, Indonesia; and the first American casualties in the war in Vietnam.

It was this twin precipice—the possibilities of infinite expansion and instant annihilation, both teetering on the edge of a new decade—that gave the period its swoon and ignited its creative energy.

Still, missing from the mix was some coalescing force, some figure who could wrap the array of changes around a theme and stamp it with his signature. And that was where Kennedy came in—talking about not only New Frontiers but the torch passing to “a new generation of Americans born in this century.” (Nixon was born in the 20th century, too—he was only four years older than Kennedy—but he was tied to Eisenhower, the oldest president in history up till then, and besides, he seemed so square.)

Now we whoosh toward the end of our own fretful decade amid a similar tangle of breakthroughs and breakdowns—global power fissuring, cultures fracturing, the world shrinking, and science poised to spawn a new round of once-unimaginable dreams and nightmares. Once again, there’s a palpable sense that we’re treading on completely new terrain.

And Obama—born in the year of JFK’s inauguration—is the one who strikes a consonant chord with this sensation of hope, fear, and change. A man from everywhere and nowhere—multiracial, multinational, multiethnic; a man of the country, the city, the tropical islands, and beyond—he’s the sequel to every Kennedy-era dream of smashing barriers and integrating not merely black with white but America with the world.

What kind of president he’ll make is a separate matter. Kennedy took almost two years to find his bearings, trust his judgment (against that of his “best and brightest” advisers), and set a course that might have converged with his promise, had he lived longer.

Obama enters the White House with more awareness of its pitfalls (because he has studied Kennedy’s record). And he enjoys high hopes and good favor because he’s viewed as so resonant with the times; and because the times are so difficult, many will grant him some fumbling and exploration—at least for a while.

In the summer of 1959, as Kennedy pondered his unlikely run for the presidency, Allen Ginsberg, the generation’s visionary poet of exuberance and doom, wrote in the Village Voice: “No one in America can know what will happen. No one is in real control. America is having a nervous breakdown. … Therefore there has been great exaltation, despair, prophecy, strain, suicide, secrecy, and public gaiety among the poets of the city.”

He might as well have written it today.