JFK's Tattered Teflon

Kennedy was a terrible president Obama shouldn't emulate.

We've seen a lot of media comment about Ted Kennedy and many of his relatives comparing Mr. Obama to his older brother Jack and claiming that he, Teddy, is passing JFK's torch to the younger generation.

Does Mr. Obama really want to be linked with JFK?  For all his glamour, JFK was a lousy president:

The War in Vietnam

JFK got us into the Vietnam war.  According to David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest, Charles DeGaulle saw that France was losing the war and offered to let Eisenhower take over.  Not wanting to buy a used war without checking it out, Eisenhower sent General Ridgeway of Korean War fame to Vietnam for due diligence.

The general reported that winning the war would take 500,000 men; paying for it would require either raising taxes or debasing the currency.  Eisenhower got back to DeGaulle and told him, "No thanks."

To be fair, Kennedy did not send a huge number of men to Vietnam, but he didn't brief his vice-president on his objectives.  When LBJ succeeded to the presidency, he had no idea what commitments Kennedy had made and he made policy decisions on the fly.

In theory, he could have decided that the war was a bad idea, but he decided to pursue it.  Having decided not to withdraw, he had no choice other than to escalate the war to the troop level which had been estimated by General Ridgeway.

We have no idea whether Kennedy would have pulled out after he realized what he'd gotten into, but JFK was the leader who bought a used war from DeGaulle.

The Bay of Pigs

JFK authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion to liberate Cuba from Castro, an act of war by any standards.  Having decided to go to war, he refused to allow any real support from our military and the enterprise ended in utter defeat.  That fiasco was even more embarrassing than President Carter's botched attempt to rescue our hostages from the American embassy in Tehran.  The senior Mr. Bush's invasion of Panama, in contrast, went off without a hitch.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

JFK got us into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets by misleading Premier Khrushchev about the American reaction to nuclear missiles in Cuba.  As negotiations broke down, the only way he was able to get the Soviets to withdraw their missiles was by threatening a naval blockade of Cuba, another act of war.  Realizing that a serious blockade would cause great hardship in Cuba, the Soviets backed down.

We don't know what was going on in Premier Khrushchev's mind, but the documents our intelligence community has provided suggest that Khrushchev took Kennedy's measure at an earlier meeting and decided that Kennedy did not have the intestinal fortitude to handle a confrontation.

Kennedy wasn't the only President who failed to communicate American intentions clearly; we're told that Saddam Hussein was led to believe that American would accept his annexation of Kuwait and that he was astonished when the Americans put together an international coalition to make him give up his prize.

Nonetheless, by involving us in three different acts of war - Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, and the naval blockade of Cuba JFK was considerably more militaristic than most Presidents before or since.  Had he lived, he'd have been regarded as a dangerous, reckless, and intemperate leader.

The Camelot Myth

JFK rescued his reputation in two ways:

  • He became immortal by dying young.
  • He had surrounded himself with a number of intellectuals who wrote well.

These men realized that they could bask in reflected glory if they rewrote history to make JFK into a hero.  They created the American Camelot legend, which has about as much truth as the original Arthurian Camelot.

Unfortunately for America, they couldn't afford to let Americans think that JFK was a casualty of the Cold War.  Their hero had been assassinated by a self-proclaimed communist, and that wouldn't do at all.  The book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism by James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, states:

Oswald was a dedicated communist who shot President Kennedy in order to interrupt Kennedy's efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro and to overthrow his communist regime in Cuba. Oswald saw Third World revolutionaries like Castro as the wave of the future. He was a dedicated communist revolutionary - and in this sense, President Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War.

JFK's hagiographers knew that if Americans believed that JFK had been murdered in retaliation for trying to murder Castro, most people would think JFK had had it coming.  Coupled with his other mistakes, attempting to murder someone would have shown JFK in a very unfavorable light.

They re-wrote history to make JFK look like a martyr to the Civil Rights struggle, which advanced their careers while minimizing the wrongs of communism.  In an interview reported in World magazine, Mr Piereson said:

With Kennedy's assassination and the upheavals of the 1960s, the walls between the radicals and liberals crumbled, and cultural radicalism entered into the mainstream of liberal thought-where it remains today.  The Democratic Party, overtaken by these forces, began to lose support among the working and middle classes, who defected to the Republicans.  In this way, the Democratic Party lost its majority status in the 1970s and the liberal era, which began with FDR in the 1930s, came to an end. ...

If JFK's death had been properly interpreted at the time as an event in the Cold War, it may have provided something of a barrier to the rise of the radical left in the later 1960s and a further reason for liberals to resist the advances of the cultural radicals.  After all, their hero had been killed by a communist.  How could they have any sympathy for the doctrines of his assassin?  The misinterpretation of Kennedy's death opened the floodgates to the rise of the radical left in the 1960s. [emphasis added]

JFK sincerely believed in the greatness of America; he founded the Peace Corps as an early exercise in spreading American ideas and knowledge to less fortunate countries.  If Americans had blamed his murder on communism, they would have been less open to accepting the supposed virtues of communism and they would have been less likely to believe that America was an evil place.  The idea that JFK had been murdered because he wanted to grant equal rights to downtrodden minorities made it easier to believe that America was a bad influence on the world, an idea which was utterly contrary to JFK's vision of America.

Misrepresenting the reason for their hero's death not only opened the way for socialistic and communistic ideas to enter American politics and unnecessarily prolonged the Cold War, it also poisoned race relations in America.  Black leaders pointed to Kennedy's assassination as evidence that America was a hopelessly racist society.  As we've reported before, leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver wanted black people to join the American mainstream.  Divisive leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton prospered by claiming that blacks were being mistreated by whites and that their only hope of getting anything was to force white people to pay them off as reparations for past wrongs.

Very few if any living Americans ever owned slaves; most whites don't feel any guilt for the black situation and resent being blamed for everything that goes wrong for any black anywhere in America.

Whither Obama

Although he seems to know about as little about foreign affairs as Mr Kennedy did when he entered the White House, Mr. Obama echoes JFK's optimism about the greatness of America, a message no Democrat has been able to project since JFK.  Mr. Obama has disconnected liberal politics from the "Blame America First" radicalism of the 1960's and '70s.  In that sense, Mr. Obama is not only looking forward, he was completely correct to compare himself to Mr. Reagan, a man who believed sincerely in the greatness of America.

There are differences -- Mr. Reagan not only believed in America, he also believed that certain foreign regimes were evil and had to be met with strength.  We hope that Mr. Obama doesn't have to learn that the hard way -- a President's on-the-job training comes with a very high tuition bill.  Being thrust suddenly into the Presidency, LBJ made a quick decision about the Vietnam war; it could be argued that he made the wrong decision, to name but one example.

Mr. Obama's carrying lily-white Iowa shows the bankruptcy of the black leadership who've built their entire careers on fanning the flames of black resentment and trying to exploit white guilt. As we've reported before, institutionalized racism is over and we should move on.

The difficulty is that the black and Hispanic leaders who've built their careers on exploiting racism will lose any remaining credibility if a black person becomes President or even wins the Democratic nomination.  Mr. Obama's optimism about our country also separates him from Democratic contenders who see nothing right about America and puts him squarely in Mr. Reagan's camp.

It's easy to see why Ted Kennedy would try to wrap Mr. Obama in the tattered mantle of his older brother, but is that a robe Mr. Obama should wear?  He'd be better off walking in Reagan's boots than wearing JFK's tattered Teflon.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments
The Economist said:

"On January 28th Mr Obama caught another useful gust. Edward Kennedy gave Mr Obama one of the most valuable treasures in Democratic politics-John Kennedy's mantle. Speaking at American University in Washington, DC, where JFK delivered one of his great speeches, and accompanied by Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter, as well as his own son, Patrick Kennedy, he repeatedly described Mr Obama as the JFK of his generation."


Talk about spin! I guess people have forgotten how JFK got us int one long war and two short wars.
February 4, 2008 5:28 PM
The Economist puts it well. "Gust" is just about the first word I think of (followed by a few choice others) when Ted Kennedy comes to mind.
February 4, 2008 5:50 PM
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