DEMOCRATS SEEKING A NEW CAMELOT
The polls may have got it wrong this week in New Hampshire, but nobody is counting Barack Obama over and out.
There is something about the 46-year-old junior senator from Illinois that speaks to the always-simmering idealism of the Democratic Party. Ever since John F. Kennedy, it’s been in search of another hero, a charismatic leader whose appeal is fresh, optimistic and potentially universal. A leader who could bring back the magic, however much a myth, of JFK’s Camelot.
Even non-supporters concede that Obama ignites the kind of visceral excitement last seen when people tumbled over each other to get a glimpse of Kennedy.
In fact, the parallels between the two men are striking. Obama comes with baggage he has no control over: his race. But so did Kennedy, with his religion.
He had to persuade party chiefs it wasn’t “too soon” for a Roman Catholic to run, that Americans were ready. Then he had to convince voters his religion wouldn’t influence his thinking, all the while placating church leaders who thought he wasn’t Catholic enough.
“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” said Kennedy. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic.”
Substitute “African-American” for Catholic, and it could be Obama.
In May 1960, when JFK won the primary in staunchly Protestant West Virginia, the religion issue vanished overnight. It will be tougher for Obama. Being the son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father will still count against him in parts of the U.S.
He too has heard the “too soon” argument from some senior Democrats. He’s certainly heard from several black leaders that he isn’t “black enough.”
Obama is also likely to be hit by the “Bradley effect,” possibly already was in New Hampshire.
(The effect involves a black candidate and what whites say about their voting intent vs. whom they actually pick. It’s named after Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, who surprisingly lost a 1982 governorship bid after polls showed he’d win handily.)
The next major primary is Jan. 26 in South Carolina, where for the first time Obama faces a large black vote. It could be his West Virginia or halt his campaign in its tracks.
The comparative youth of both men now, as then, is a major drawback. JFK was just 30 when he entered politics in Massachusetts, barely 42 when he began his run for the White House. He was seen as an upstart by party honchos and, with the U.S. engaged in the Cold War, far too young to be trusted with the presidency.
Obama’s lack of experience nationally has also been criticized, not least by his main competitor, Hillary Clinton. A state legislator for seven years, he’s been a junior senator for three, the last one of which he spent running for the leadership.
Like JFK, he faces a nation in the throes of anxiety and disillusionment. Just as nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union once seemed inevitable, the current war on terrorism seems unwinnable and unending.
But Kennedy believed judgment, not experience, is the key criterion for leadership: “Experience is like tail-lights on a boat which illuminate where we have been,” he once said, “when we should be focusing on where we should be going.”
He won the narrowest of victories over Republican Richard Nixon and, in his inauguration speech, played up his youth: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger … The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
The hypnotizing words were actually written by speechwriter Ted Sorensen. There are few knights of the round table left, but Sorensen, now 80, is one of them and he’s actively supporting Obama. He sees him as heir to JFK’s legacy, with the same magnetic charm and “fantastically winning smile,” but more important, the same ability to motivate Americans.
People want to be inspired again, Sorensen told South Carolina’s The State newspaper last month, the way Kennedy did with his famous “Ask not what your country can do for you …” invocation.
“People are now ready for a call to service,” said Sorensen. “They want to have a hero, think great thoughts, hear bold visions again. And they want to be asked to serve. Service is good for the national character. Kennedy believed that strongly.”
Brad Warthen, The State’s editorial page director, says Obama, like JFK, has “grace and style – he is who he is. And he certainly has a Pied Piper effect on young people.” If he sweeps South Carolina, with its racially mixed voters, he could go all the way.
If not, Obama can remind himself that the “Camelot” of JFK’s presidency didn’t exist until after his death. It was Jackie Kennedy who planted the image in the public mind, telling historian Theodore White he loved listening to the record of the Broadway show: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
White, 20 years later in his book In Search of History, wrote that “the magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed.” There were no Merlins, no Sir Galahads. Kennedy was tough and unromantic. But he was a leader. “He posed for the first time the great question … What kind of people are we Americans? What do we want to become?”