When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he talked of a new generation of Americans taking charge, of heading out bravely for a New Frontier. He did not call up the shades of FDR or Harry Truman, or go back 45 years to Woodrow Wilson.
The same was true of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He offered a vision of a grand future where America would become again, after the malaise of the Carter era, a "shining city on a hill." There was no hearkening back by Reagan to the great days of Ike.
Whatever their flaws and failings, both were charismatic and inspirational leaders, looking ahead in anticipation of heroic battles to be won and great deeds to be done. Yet, in both parties today, the presidential candidates seem to feel a need to identify with and connect themselves to what are now the legendary leaders and causes of yesteryear.
For Democrats, it is JFK and Robert Kennedy. For Republicans, it is Reagan, which must frost the Bushes — who, between them, will have served four years longer than the Gipper, who departed almost 20 years ago.
For George H.W. Bush, it must be especially galling. For he presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait. Epochal events.
And, clearly, Bill Clinton was more than a little upset to hear Barack Obama talk of the Republican Party of the ’90s as the party of ideas and of Reagan as a transformational figure — unlike Bill Clinton. Indeed, it says something about the Democratic Party today that to reach its heroes — JFK, RFK, Dr. King — it must go back 40 years and pass over three presidents, Clinton, Carter and LBJ, who served 17 years. And Robert Kennedy never even made it, and was a presidential candidate for less than three months.
This invocation of the ghosts of the past seems to testify to a sense of inadequacy on the part of today’s candidates, a need to reconnect to the party base, to insert themselves in a great tradition — rather than establish a new, separate identity — and to a belief that the years since Reagan have not been times of greatness in America.
Since our victory in the Cold War, we seem not to have lived in heroic times. After all, invading Panama and Haiti, bombing Serbia and crushing Saddam twice is not quite the same as taking the measure of the Evil Empire or prevailing in the Cuban missile crisis.
As for the war against "Islamofascism," it pales beside the war against the real fascists of the 20th century: the Japanese Empire and Hitler’s Reich, which, in two years, conquered Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hosting David Duke at a Holocaust Conference, doesn’t quite cut it.
For Democrats the problem seems most acute.
After all, JFK has been dead 44 years. No one under 50 has any memory of his presidency. While his daughter has grown up to be a lovely woman, how many young people even know who Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg is?
And other than his assassination that terrible day in Dallas and the Cuban missile crisis, which they learned about in school, what do the people of America under 50 even know about JFK?
There was the Bay of Pigs, the space program, and Jackie and her glamour. The film clips of JFK standing before the Berlin Wall declaring "Ich bin ein Berliner" are often shown, but few commentators mention that the wall went up on JFK’s watch and he did zip about it. And since JFK, we have had LBJ, the Great Society, Vietnam, Nixon and China, Watergate, the Ford-Carter interlude, the Reagan era and two decades of Bush-Clinton-Bush.
Alone among the candidates, Barack seems to want to become a leader in the JFK-Reagan mold. His problem: He has no great cause like the Cold War or civil rights revolution and no great adversary as a foil.
Universal health care may be important. It is also a crashing bore, as that wonkish Democratic debate last week demonstrated. And didn’t LBJ already do the heavy lifting on Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights?
The Democrats’ problem is that it is the party of government, when, after Katrina, no one really believes in government anymore, except perhaps the military.
John McCain, now identifying himself as a "foot solider in the Reagan revolution," is casting himself in a heroic posture as a Churchill who will "never surrender" and lead us to victory in the war against Islamofascism.
But the American people now believe the war in Iraq was a mistake and want out, if only we can avoid a defeat or a bloody debacle.
Perhaps the candidates are hearkening back to yesterday because they know the American people are unhappy with today, and Barack’s followers aside, are not looking forward to tomorrow with any anticipation of great days ahead under either party.