Blogs > HNN > A Collective Act of Historical Amnesia

Feb 7, 2008 7:16 pm

A Collective Act of Historical Amnesia

We seem to be suffering from a collective act of historical amnesia. All the commentators claiming that Senator Barack Obama has generated more excitement than any candidate since John F. Kennedy have overlooked the inconvenient, embarrassing, fact that a more recent candidate generated a similar buzz. In fact, given the ubiquity of this “JFK standard,” we could say that the last candidate to trigger such Kennedyesque hopes was none other than Obama’s chief rival’s spouse (could we say rival in-law): Bill Clinton.

Remember back in 1992 Clinton was the candidate of hope, who happened to be born in a little town called Hope. Coming from nowhere, a relative unknown when he started, he was carrying the torch of a new generation, generating rock-star like crowds with his special kind of charisma and his own distinctive eloquence steeped in optimism. Clinton on the campaign trail had that “It” factor that Obama has. Clinton had millions gushing that he was their John Kennedy, the first candidate in their lifetime who inspired them and empowered them.

Clinton, like Obama, also had sex appeal. I recall meeting a leading woman academic who admitted, just after the 1992 election, that she had received one of those emails bouncing around the internet identifying ten signs that you have a crush on Bill Clinton – and that she had almost all of them.

Bill Clinton’s transitions from wunderkind to senior statesman, from man of hope to perpetual adolescent, from party renegade to ultimate insider, have all obscured the jazz and optimism of 1992. President Clinton did not indulge in the same kind of inspirational politics that candidate Clinton or President Kennedy did. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s own artlessness on the campaign trail also accounts for some of the historical haze.

In fact, the contrast between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as campaigners is striking. Obama words are lyrical, his manner is fluid, the speeches rock. Compare him -- even when he lost in New Hampshire -- and Hillary Clinton when she won in New Hampshire. He is as smooth, as she is stiff. His words take off, soaring like colorful balloons that you want to linger over and watch until they have disappeared from view; her clipped tones and predictable words sink like the proverbial lead balloons. It is not surprising that Obama’s words have been set to music – Hillary Clinton should not expect such treatment for her earnest addresses any time soon. This kind of ease cannot be invented or replicated -- you either have it or you don't -- Bill Clinton has it, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush - who had other talents -- didn't. Ronald Reagan had it. Walter Mondale, his opponent in 1984, didn't.

And yet, the fact that so many Americans now skip over Bill Clinton and go straight to John Kennedy when rummaging through the historical attic searching for inspiring characters, offers sobering warnings to Obama and to the American people. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was correct -- the presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership – governing is not the same as politicking. The transition from being an inspirational candidate to a workaday president can be rough. Ronald Reagan was more successful than Bill Clinton at remaining fired up. Bill Clinton’s experience was more typical, as the complexity of governing turned him from the poet of possibility to the king of compromise.

We know Obama knows how to wow a crowd, we don’t know how he would weather the transition from shaper of dreams to maker of policies. Ironically, the somewhat embarrassing comparison between Barack Obama circa 2008 and Bill Clinton circa 1992 reinforces one of Hillary Clinton’s most compelling arguments for her own election. She keeps saying trust the record not the rhetoric. Of course, she and her campaign team would love to find a different analogy to help bolster that argument.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/18/2008

Might be possible, particularly among academics. I wonder, however, if it was something that was wandering around a year or two later and that her memory has attached it to her early "infatuation." By 1994, email was far more common

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/18/2008

Part of the challenge of change is that it is almost impossible to do without insiders. Without inside knowldedge, substantive change is much, much harder to achieve, but almost by definition, long-term insiders are going to have their own agendas.

So, my question for you is whose foreign policy insiders are better in this race?

Deb Bunno - 2/17/2008

Obama's self-described friend, mentor and advisor, Rev. Wright Jr is so important to Obama he consulted and prayed with him before deciding to run for president. Wright "led him to religion". The title of Obama's book (the one he said he hates his White blood in) came from a sermon Wright gave.

Wright endorses Obama and Louis Farrakhan. Wright claims Black Americans listen to and respect Farrakhan (who calls Whites "blue-eyed devils" and "anti-Christ", and Jews "bloodsuckers". He also hates gays and America, vows allegience to Africa). Wright lauds Farrakhan and his magazine, The Trumpet, gave him an award.

Either you call someone like that a racist bigot and have nothing to do with them, or agree with them, call them "friend" and "mentor". Obama did the latter. He is a racist/bigot. He just can't afford to say so - and given his ability to excite youth (much like Hitler did), he doesn't have to be honest.

William J. Stepp - 2/16/2008

All heads of state are demagogues at least on occasion. Name one that wasn't.

William J. Stepp - 2/16/2008

I recall meeting a leading woman academic who admitted, just after the 1992 election, that she had received one of those emails bouncing around the internet identifying ten signs that you have a crush on Bill Clinton – and that she had almost all of them.

I am skeptical of the date in this claim, as I don't think e-mail was in
very wide use then, accept maybe in the scientific community. The financial firm I worked for then was an early adopter of technology and I didn't have e-mail in 1992. Could it have been after the 1996 election?

Dennis Slough - 2/15/2008

Bill Clinton was an appealing candidate in 1992, but he didn't attract new voters to the process the way Barack Obama has. He didn't inspire normally apolitical people, particular young people, to caucus and vote in primaries the way both candidates, but especially Obama, has this time. JFK or Robert Kennedy are better comparisons for Obama.

I'm sure the devastation of the Bush presidency is partly responsible for this year's enthusiasm, but only when coupled with a charismatic candidate who also exhibits extraordinary sense and great skill at politicking.

What I do see as similar is the centrism of both Bill Clinton and Obama, which I believe is the thing that turned Republicans into such rabid bomb throwers during Clinton's era. They couldn't attack his policies so they attacked him. I think Obama's real strength is that with the huge political capital he's established with voters and once non-voters, he'll be able to marginalize the extremists to such an extent we will get a government capable of big change instead of the incremental changes we saw in the 90s.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/14/2008

Just to join the crowd, I will say that Bill Clinton was the best talker I ever saw as President; Ronald Reagan was a close second. No one else could be called even a distant third.

Now, the Over/Under for the Electoral College in this year's election: Hillary, 247; Obama, 69; and, McCain, 190. Yes, this means I think Hillary has a real chance but that Obama will get crushed.

Jonathan Pine - 2/14/2008

"governing is not the same as politicking" How true. After the drama is over, then we know who we have; our current president is a good example.

None of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, running today are inspirational. None of them, I believe, can master the condition of America. It would take an exceptional man or woman and an enlightened electorate to recognize this.

Maarja Krusten - 2/13/2008

Nothing more clearly illustrates the difference between 1960 and now than Stephen Colbert's hilarious send up of push polling last month. There was a show in the early 1960s that took a satirical look at current events (David Frost's That Was the Week That Was, which I believe aired around 1964). But it did not touch on campaign advisors and tactics, which didn't receive nearly as much play in the press then as they do now. As a I noted, the focus was on what the candidate said and did. Nowadays, we get much more "inside baseball" type coverage. Consequently, when Colbert made fun of push polling, the audience knew exactly what he was mocking.

Posted on personal time

Elliott Aron Green - 2/12/2008

Another piece of Obama's fakery is his pretense to not be part of the Washington crowd, which people rightly mistrust. Carter took that same pose back in 1976. He was a fake too.

Carter's national security advisor was Zbig Brzezinski who just happens to be one of Obama's already known advirors. Under Zbig's foreign policy leadership [during Carter's tenure], the world got the Khomeini regime in Iran which has led to today's ahmadinejad. A-jad seems to have been a leader of the "students" who seized the US embassy in Teheran in 1979, taking American civilians hostage, and now he is on top. Another Zbig achievement was to prepare osama bin Laden for terrorist leadership in the then joint struggle against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Zbig is a Beltway insider who is in the top rank of the ruthlessly coldblooded, like Kissinger and james Baker. One wonders whether Zbig dreams of wars as yet unfought between peoples and factions that may not yet be aware that they are deadly enemies to each other.

Samantha Power, another named Obama advisor, seems to belong to the Ford Foundation school of US foreign policy. She believes --or once believed-- in Arafat's Jenin Massacre hoax. I compared the "Jenin Massacre" to the blood libel at the focus of the 1840 Damascus Affair [in an article in Midstream, Feb-March 2003]. Could Samantha help introduce the hysteria of a blood libel affair into the foreign policy of a President Obama?? All in the name of humanity and human rights, of course.

Maarja Krusten - 2/11/2008

Just guessing here, but one possible reason why people may view JFK differently than his successors may be because in the last few decades, they have become accustomed to hearing a lot about campaign managers and advisors. Think of how often newspaper readers see details of in-fighting on a candidate's team and discussion who is up and who is down, internally.

That was not the case in 1960, the campaign machinery worked away in the background with far less scrutiny by reporters and much less publicity than in recent decades. Sure, people knew about RFK -- but he was family, JFK's brother, so he had a special and dual role in the campaign. The candidate still largely was the public face of the campaign in 1960.

Starting with Ronald Reagan's campaign, people began to hear more and more details about the roles, functions, strategic decisions, tactics -- and occasionally even the internal disputes among -- campaign managers and advisors. Since 1980, names such as Lee Atwater, Ed Rollins, Paul Begala, James Carville, Karl Rove, have appeared in newspapers with a frequency and at a level of scrutiny unheard of in JFK's day. (That's even taking into account the first Making of a President book, which covered 1960 and provided some behind the scenes glimpses of how that campaign played out.)

News reporting after 1980 increasingly has pulled back the curtain on the teams candidates rely on and de-mystified some, but not all, aspects of of running for President. JFK is a figure from an earlier time, when much of what went into becoming President still was hiddeen in the shadows for readers of newspapers and for tv viewers.

Elliott Aron Green - 2/11/2008

Gil Troy,
Your description of Obama could be boiled down to saying that he is a superb demagogue. With which I agree. Yes, he can exploit the fantasies and sexual yearnings of young women. And he does this without making promises about specific, concrete matters [for the most part]. He focusses on Change, which in fact everybody wants. Prez George II wants change. Gordon Brown wants change. So do the pope and Ahmadinajad. Change is inevitable. It will happen under any president. But not all change is good. But if a demagogue can get away with repeating the word as a mantra, then we have a dangerous situation. We have an extremely ignorant, simpleminded public following its own emotions and instincts, waiting to be turned in almost any direction, waiting to be misled and abused. Even the apparent reluctance of newscasters, journalists, and historians to call Obama a demagogue points to a dangerous situation. When the public chases a demagogue who fails to make specific promises in his appeals directed to the general public, then --if he gathers support-- democracy is dying.

Is Obama an "empty suit," as someone said?? He may be worse. At the same time, I see little special virtue in Hilary or McCain. This could mean a very dangerous and destructive period ahead, no matter which of those three wins the 2008 election.