David R. Stokes: Obama’s Very Un-JFK Moment





[Mr. Stokes is the senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, VA.]

If Barack Obama winds up losing the election this November, most likely a significant portion of the blame will affix to his selection of a running mate. The issue will not have much of anything to do with Senator Joe Biden’s personality or performance. It will simply be a case of “what might have been” if Hillary Rodham Clinton had been placed on the ticket.

In fact, the man who would be John F. Kennedy, who has sought the Camelot mantle and basked in déjà vu images of a time that never really was, has for the first time in his once-quixotic campaign departed from the script. JFK would have made the tough and pragmatic choice, against the advice of those closest to him – particularly brother Bobby. He would have chosen Clinton. In fact, he did choose “his” Hillary – a man named Lyndon.

It remains for the story to fully unfold, and for journalists and historians to research and write about the behind the scenes machinations leading to the Biden selection and, more importantly, the Clinton rejection. But I suspect that we will come to learn about strong feelings generated by the deep wounds inflicted during fierce political battle.

The whole image of all things Kennedy clearly resonates with the Democratic standard bearer. He has laboriously cultivated a calculated political resemblance. But there are many compelling distinctions between Barack and Jack, not the least of which are fundamental differences in temperament and personality.

Kennedy was not only cool – he was cold. He could turn the charm on when necessary – and did so with unparalleled effectiveness – but his default mode was to be detached and aloof.

As Seymour Hersh wrote in The Dark Side of Camelot, the public-at-large was enamored of Jack’s “charm and style,” but most “would see very little of the real John F. Kennedy, and would never fully sense the Kennedy cynicism and toughness.”

It is, of course, a very good thing that Mr. Obama has a demonstrable capacity for closeness to others, as is clearly apparent with his marriage and family (another contrast with JFK). And this suggests that when people close to him feel strongly, he can and will be influenced.

In other words, some in his inner circle have never gotten over what Bill and Hillary Clinton said and did during the primary campaign. It is that simple.

JFK’s brother and campaign manager Bobby despised Lyndon Johnson – and was distraught when Jack tapped him for Vice President. One wonders - how did Michelle Obama (Barack’s “Bobby”) feel and express herself about the whole “should Hillary be on the ticket” subject? A while back, in an appearance on that wonderfully erudite television show The View, Mrs. Obama seemed to distance herself from the process saying, “I am just glad I am not involved in that decision.” Really? It is really hard to envision such an otherwise fully immersed life partner not being privy to those discussions.

John F. Kennedy went against the advice of his closest advisors when he chose Lyndon Baines Johnson to run with him. It was a marriage of calculated political convenience. It was not about “chemistry” or compatibility. It was a shrewd and pragmatic decision based on the bottom line: who would best help the ticket in November.

The twelve-hour period in Los Angeles during the night of July 13-14, 1960, as Mr. Kennedy pondered his running mate options, was one of the most interesting moments in the history of presidential electoral politics. Having captured the nomination on the first ballot with 806 votes (761 required to win), he had beaten back a late-hour challenge by Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader from Texas. Though LBJ had only “officially” announced his candidacy a few days before the convention, he had been orchestrating a stealth campaign for many months. When the roll was called, he received 409 votes – a strong second, considering his late entry.

The Kennedy-Johnson battle of July 1960 may have been brief, but it was very brutal. The Texan tore into Jack using everything he could think of to sway convention delegates. He talked about Kennedy’s health and the rumors of Addison’s disease (potentially fatal). He railed against JFK’s youth, regularly referring to him as a “forty-two year old kid” (he was actually forty-three). He even brought up old family history declaring that in the Second World War: “I wasn’t any Chamberlain-umbrella policy man, I never thought Hitler was right.” This was, of course, a reference to Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had been the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James in Great Britain in the late 1930s. His views on appeasement and Hitler led to his recall by President Roosevelt.

The gloves were off.

By the way, part of John F. Kennedy’s detached aloofness was evident in the way he could deflect personal attacks with humor. In fact, at a hastily arranged televised “debate” before a joint meeting of Massachusetts and Texas delegates just the day prior to his nomination, he listened to Johnson’s tirade. But when his turn to talk came, he chose only to speak about how much he admired LBJ and how he supported him for Majority Leader in the Senate.

It was the triumph of cool. That capacity is actually what made it possible for Kennedy to choose Johnson, against the advice of a host of soon-to-be New Frontier characters.

Lyndon Johnson surprised many by accepting the number-two spot on the ticket. Just why he would give up a clearly more powerful position in the senate to take a job that had been long-referred to as “not worth a bucket of warm spit,” puzzled many close to him. Possibly the greatest influence on him was then Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, LBJ’s long-time mentor. Mister Sam, as he was affectionately known by friends, had been opposed to the idea of Lyndon running as VP, but overnight changed his mind declaring: “I’m a damn sight smarter than I was last night.”

Interestingly, one clue as to what Johnson was thinking is left to us in a biography of Clare Booth Luce, former congresswoman and one time U.S. Ambassador to Italy, written by Ralph G. Martin. The book describes a conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Mrs. Luce shortly after the inauguration on January 20, 1961 – in fact while the two were riding together en route to the inaugural ball. Having been asked why he accepted the Vice Presidential nomination the previous July, LBJ told her:

“Clare, I looked it up; one out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

So the Kennedy-Johnson partnership was born of, and driven by, political cynicism. It was only possible in an environment where naked ambition trumped personal feelings of animosity, suspicion, and hurt.

Mr. Obama chose not to go down that path when he passed over Hillary Clinton in favor of Joseph Biden. Because he and those around him are still licking their wounds, he chose the safe-bet over the slam-dunk. In doing so, he stepped out of predictable Kennedy-esque character in a way not yet seen in this campaign.

If he loses in November, he may very well be remembered as a John F. Kennedy wannabe who couldn’t really pull the cynical trigger. And maybe that would be best for all of us.




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