From Kennedy to Obama – what might have been

I was in eleventh grade when the shots were fired, the announcement was made, and the LBJ years began. Up until JFK, my father had been a Republican, but after the “I Like Ike” years, both my father and I graduated to the Democratic Party. JFK had influenced me already; I decided to go to American University in DC because the President had given a brave and optimistic speech there about ending the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

How could you not admire JFK, he was thoughtful, funny, caring, athletic and eloquent? Does that remind you of anyone? Of course it does, President Barack Obama. We should be so fortunate as to have the two of them as presidents in the same half-century. But the violence that struck down JFK, and the prejudicial venom directed to President Obama is what is so disturbing. Equally a downer is much of the list of presidents we’ve had in between.

The accomplishments of JFK were remarkable, and they were accelerating at the time of his death. While it’s true that much of the Great Society legislation of Lyndon Johnson was made easier because of the sympathy towards Kennedy following his slaying, the specifics of the Great Society were items that were on JFK’s checklist. Also on JFK’s “to-do” list was to thoroughly re-examine the commitment that the United States had to South Vietnam. But his accomplishments were brutally ended by the strange loner who had as few reasons to feel good about himself as JFK had reasons to regard himself with pride.

As things are now, Barack Obama, a man with as many assets or more as John Kennedy, has fallen into a rut in which he is mercilessly battered by the right, a right that is far fiercer than what JFK faced. For the most part, the media is stone cold to what Barack Obama could do if he was given a few breaks. But perhaps most distressing for the President is how his base seems to abandon him when he needs them most. The hope that JFK gave us is only equaled by that which Barack Obama has given us. It’s quite possible that if we don’t help him when skies are grey, we will have to wait another half-century to get a similar opportunity.

As inelegant as LBJ was, he was skillful in getting legislation passed. If he had chosen to withdraw from Vietnam, he might have put in place a long-lasting progressive era. But that didn’t happen.

Jimmy Carter was our next hope and he was to be loved for his professed sense of ethics, his attention to detail, and his connection with “ordinary people.” But like Obama, he was fiercely opposed by the right; undermined by the media; and somewhat forgotten by the left. Was it his fault that the hostages were taken in Iran? Probably not. Was it his fault that a helicopter crashed in a rescue mission? No. He became a one-term president.

Bill Clinton gave us a big boost. He tried to reform health care he didn’t have the magic touch. His one major foreign intervention was so successful that the U.S. did not lose a single person in the Balkans conflict. Clinton knew how to maintain a semi-progressive agenda and still bring us a balanced budget. But his dalliance with Monica limited the esteem with which the public held him. A progressive period was abruptly stopped when a conservative and cynical Supreme Court selected George W. Bush to be president rather than Al Gore.

For someone who has had high hopes that the government can help promote more income equality, expand human rights, acknowledge its mistakes, intervene in foreign affairs with great caution, it’s been a very rough fifty years, from beginning to end. As part of the Kennedy legacy, we need to garner as much support as we can for Barack Obama and pave the way for a continuing line of Democratic presidents, each one daring to get a little more progressive than the last.