Frank-er, Rich-er

The formidable Frank Rich, the former drama critic who now writes political analyses with a riveting sense of drama, seems to have recovered from last week’s outburst. A week after venting his disgust with the Clintonian tactics used in South Carolina (in some parts, his column sounded raw, unprocessed), Rich regained his balance and addressed, Hamlet-like, the ghost at the ramparts.

John F. Kennedy, that is.

J. F. K. had few policy prescriptions beyond Democratic boilerplate (a higher minimum wage, “comprehensive housing legislation”). As his speechwriter Richard Goodwin recalled in his riveting 1988 memoir “Remembering America,” Kennedy’s main task was to prove his political viability. He had to persuade his party that he was not a wealthy dilettante and not “too young, too inexperienced and, above all, too Catholic” to be president.

How did the fairy-tale prince from Camelot vanquish a field of heavyweights led by the longtime liberal warrior Hubert Humphrey? It wasn’t ideas. It certainly wasn’t experience. It wasn’t even the charisma that Kennedy would show off in that fall’s televised duels with Richard Nixon.

Looking back almost 30 years later, Mr. Goodwin summed it up this way: “He had to touch the secret fears and ambivalent longings of the American heart, divine and speak to the desires of a swiftly changing nation — his message grounded on his own intuition of some vague and spreading desire for national renewal.”

In other words, Kennedy needed two things. He needed poetry, and he needed a country with some desire, however vague, for change.

Mr. Goodwin and his fellow speechwriter Ted Sorensen helped with the poetry. Still, the placid America of 1960 was not obviously in the market for change. The outgoing president, Ike, was the most popular incumbent since F. D. R. The suburban boom was as glossy as it is now depicted in the television show “Mad Men.” The Red Panic of the McCarthy years was in temporary remission.

But Kennedy’s intuition was right. America’s boundless self-confidence was being rattled by (as yet) low-grade fevers: the surprise Soviet technological triumph of Sputnik; anti-American riots in even friendly non-Communist countries; the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. at an all-white restaurant in Atlanta; the inexorable national shift from manufacturing to white-collar jobs. Kennedy bet his campaign on, as he put it, “the single assumption that the American people are uneasy at the present drift in our national course” and “that they have the will and strength to start the United States moving again.”

For all the Barack Obama-J. F. K. comparisons, whether legitimate or over-the-top, what has often been forgotten is that Mr. Obama’s weaknesses resemble Kennedy’s at least as much as his strengths. But to compensate for those shortcomings, he gets an extra benefit that J. F. K. lacked in 1960. There’s nothing vague about the public’s desire for national renewal in 2008, with a reviled incumbent in the White House and only 19 percent of the population finding the country on the right track, according to the last Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll. America is screaming for change.

Still a pro-Obama cover, but without the anti-Clinton static.

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Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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