Not Your Father's JFK

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the “mainstream” media. In its pursuit of oversimplification, there are only so many heroes to choose from, particularly when it comes to liberal politicians. With the last lion of the Kennedy clan terminally ill and the next generations of the family proving inept at best, it’s time for a new Kennedy. Meet Barack Obama.

For months now it seems everywhere you turn someone has been making comparisons between the senator from Illinois and John F. Kennedy. Just Sunday the New York Times even compared Michelle Obama’s fashion sense with that of the legendary Jackie O.

The Kennedys themselves have gotten on board, with a full family rally in January to endorse Mr. Obama at which Sen. Edward M. Kennedy likened the presidential hopeful to his martyred brother.

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the late president’s daughter, accompanied the endorsement with a newspaper op-ed in which she declared: “Over the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.”

Now Mrs. Schlossberg is one of three members of the panel vetting potential vice presidential candidates for Mr. Obama.

Of course, Mr. Obama demurs if the comparison to Kennedy is raised, while his campaign milks it whenever possible. He’s even enlisted JFK’s premier wordsmith Ted Sorensen to work on his speeches.

Here’s the catch: The late President Kennedy was far more conservative than the political party he represented is today. Just a look at the hawkish Cold War tone of his national security speeches during the 1960 campaign would cause a building-wide fainting spell at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. So, like many historical figures, he has been twisted Gumby-like into an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all caricature to meet the needs of whoever is quoting him on a given day. Including his own family.

Mr. Obama’s sunny nostrums for hope in the dog days of the Bush presidency are seen by aging liberals and their historically illiterate younger allies as a reincarnation of the youthful Kennedy bringing an end to the dark ages of the Eisenhower presidency. Students of history realize, of course, that it was the triumph of style over substance, but that’s another story.

But sometimes — even for a modern-day, soundbite-tested politician used to ducking follow-up questions — it’s hard to make words mean other than what they say.

JFK’s most famous quotation, except perhaps his declaration at the then newly-built Berlin Wall that he was a jelly doughnut (“Ich bin ein Berliner”), came at the close of his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he told his fellow Americans that bitterly cold day. “Ask what you can do for your country.”

The charge, so symbolic of the youthful energy his presidency conveyed, has been in the history books and on the lips of many Americans ever since. Many Baby Boomers even like to believe we’ve practiced what he preached.

Now flash forward nearly 50 years from that historic date to the presidential campaign of 2008. The new Kennedy, Barack Obama — and only to a slightly lesser degree his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain — are already turning JFK’s inspiring quotation upside down, offering every kind of government prescription possible.

In the age of no-responsibility, the new mantra is, "Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do for you." Yeah, that’s right, for me. Isn’t that what it’s all about these days?

With Republican candidates forever wrapping themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, Lord knows what the Great Communicator’s words will be used to advocate in the years to come. I can see it now: A Republican political hopeful standing at our border with Mexico, forcefully declaring, “Mr. President, tear down this wall.”