March 7, 2008
JFK fans have been there before
Caroline Kennedy is deeply moved by people who say this: That they felt inspired and hopeful about America when her father was president.
I was one of them, but younger than most and in awe, early on.
I told my parents I was going to hear John F. Kennedy's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. I was 12 years old. Times were different. I went alone, on the Olympic Boulevard bus, transferring at Vermont, then walked a few blocks. I arrived early for a good seat, but the Los Angeles Coliseum was more empty than full.
Why was I drawn so profoundly to John F. Kennedy?
Eisenhower was the president then. Ike was bald, perhaps older than my grandfather was. He seemed awkward; he practically stuttered. What's more, I heard he was always playing golf. (Robert Welch, the paranoid leader of the John Birch Society, suggested that Eisenhower might be a closet communist. "He's not a communist," sarcastically responded conservative sage Russell Kirk. "He's a golfer.")
Anyway, JFK had more hair than my father did, and he was younger. He spoke with confidence and optimism. And he played touch football.
Kennedy had energy. It was called vigor or, as JFK said, "vi-guh." I did not know about Camelot, but if this was politics, I wanted to be part of it.
There was a missile gap, JFK said. That sounded ominous, because in school we had bomb drills, where we went under the desk, in case the Soviet Union attacked. Worse, Eisenhower allowed communist Fidel Castro to come to power in Cuba, "90 miles off our shores."
And there was Jackie, pretty, sophisticated, glamorous. How could Pat Nixon compete? And as for Dick Nixon in the debate, he looked older than his years, drawn and tired, with a five o'clock shadow. But how could I know then about botched makeup? Or that radio listeners gave Nixon the debate, but the dominant television audience rated JFK the winner?
I felt a personal triumph as Kennedy was elected. I had pride in him, pride in my country. And I was a part of all this. Soon there would be the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress and the space program. And President Kennedy had those weekly news conferences that I watched after school. He was witty, charming, smiling. If only I knew he spent more time than Eisenhower playing golf, and there never was a missile gap.
Caroline Kennedy says she never had a president who inspired her the way JFK inspired me. In fact, it was because of JFK that I got into politics. I volunteered every day after junior high school, and on weekends, to work at the Kennedy headquarters at Wilshire and La Brea.
I had lost my political virginity. And somewhere along the way, I would lose my way, entirely. In the Fairfax area, where Republicans feared to register, I would become the closest thing to a teenage werewolf -- a teenage Republican. Before the next presidential election, my idol would be Barry Goldwater, I would become a leader in Young Americans for Freedom and make history in the conservative movement. I would elect some of the biggest names in American conservatism.
For me, it was the Bay of Pigs, the invasion of Cuba. Even at age 13, I was disillusioned as I learned a new vocabulary word -- "fiasco." JFK abruptly had denied promised air support to what I viewed as freedom fighters and liberators. They were hung out to dry, or die, in the invasion. I felt he betrayed them ... and me. After all, JFK had said we would "bear any burden, pay any price" for freedom. But he seemed to get cold feet.
History would record, his supporters said, that JFK was prudent, even if tardy, in failing to honor a reckless CIA commitment. I did not see it that way then, and I have never looked back.
More than a year later, the Berlin Wall was built. I was too young to know that East German troops were acting illegally. But what they did seemed wrong, evil. And President Kennedy, who seemed so strong and dynamic as a candidate, stood by. When I would later read that Goldwater asked about communism, "Why not victory?" the words would be music to my ears.
But I was not there yet. My patriotic faith in JFK had been renewed in October 1962 when President Kennedy went "eyeball to eyeball" with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who, it was said, blinked. The Soviets reportedly withdrew missiles from Cuba, and America was safe again. (I later learned JFK signed off on a secret protocol to accommodate the Soviets in Turkey.)
But I began to wonder -- why would the Soviets be so bold, unless they thought they could get away with it? JFK had seemed to be the kind of leader I wanted. But I soon began to read the criticism, and I asked myself -- did he resolve a crisis that his own weakness created?
I did not know then what I know today. The Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred on April 19, 1961. Khrushchev consequently concluded JFK was weak. Barely seven weeks later, JFK went to Vienna for a summit with Khrushchev. Apparently, President Kennedy thought he had scored brownie points and earned trust with the Soviet leader by acquiescing to Castro's reign. He also misjudged and underestimated the crude, shoe-pounding Soviet leader. But Khrushchev, as you would expect a tough Russian communist to do, took a full measure of Kennedy. He validated his view that JFK was squishy. Accordingly, he would later build the Berlin Wall and then authorize importing an offensive missile capability into Cuba.
Which brings me full circle to the new JFK. It is not merely the cadence in Barack Obama's speech, but his daunting eloquence. He can both write and speak elegantly. Impromptu, he barely has to reach for the words; he makes connecting so easy. If only this election were an oratorical contest.
But I "knew" JFK, and Barack is no JFK. Sen. Obama did not serve in war and has barely served in the U.S. Senate. And, on policy, President Kennedy did not engage in class warfare but reduced income taxes for the highest earning taxpayers, to spur investment and economic growth. And, whatever his failings, he stayed with the learning curve. Near the end of his presidency, he was determined to confront communism, not construct timetables to withdraw from the Cold War.