Shades of Kennedy in the Making of Obama

It’s probably hard to remember at this moment, between his getting hammered on every conceivable front from his would-be Republican opponents to his erstwhile supporters occupying a web of cities and hamlets radiating out from Wall Street, but there was a time not that long ago when Barack Obama was a fresh-faced 40-something candidate for president who shattered all kinds of barriers on his way to claiming the presidency in November 2008.

There have been plenty of books, an outpouring really, about every aspect of Obama’s campaign to his presidency, and I am finding all kinds of parallels between his quest for the nation’s highest political office and that of another charismatic yet emotionally aloof, lean, Harvard-educated Senator with a flair for writing and an attractive wife who set all kinds of fashion standards.

I am referring of course to Brookline’s own John F. Kennedy, who became the youngest elected president in the 20th century, who invited an aging Robert Frost to read at his inauguration where he stood without a hat and delivered a harsh if inspiring message to the nation and the world.

Kennedy devotee Theodore White chronicled his ultimately successful journey to the presidency in The Making of the President, 1960, and I’m having a terrific time making my way through it.

The pleasure comes both from the writing-White actually appears in David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, about the media-which is on full display, especially in the book’s opening chapter, which describes Kennedy’s agonizing wait on Election Day for the results from the voters who will determine his fate.

Yet it’s also enjoyable for its prescience and for its description of the electoral system, which has only morphed and expanded in the ensuing half century.

Then, Kennedy, after winning the first primary against Hubert Humphrey  in Wisconsin, expected the contest to be over, and in fact was irritated, if not enraged, at the Minnesotan’s failure to do so.

Also lurking in the wings was Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic standard bearer who hoped to be drafted at the Los Angeles convention.

The time frame-Kennedy spent a year all told-the scale of money, and the role of the primary all seem miniscule compared with the arduous 20-month churn that has become standard fare for presidency seekers of both major parties.

The delegates’ and bosses’ roles do appear to have diminished, which is on the whole an advance for democracy if not for government as the primary season, even with Super Tuesday, essentially means that little substantial governance happens in the entire year leading up to the first Tuesday in November every four years.

I’ve not yet gotten to the Republican side of things, and am eager to do so.

In the meantime, we are rapidly approaching the number of days in Obama’s tenure when Kennedy was assassinated  during his term.  Obama’s plummeting poll numbers may make him yearn for the days of his candidacy, when his hair was not coated in grey and he was able to promise more than try to deliver on his thus far thwarted plans of transformational change.

White’s book is not only a primer on the American system, it is a reminder of how our democracy remains an imperfect work in progress in which we have made progress in some areas yet have oh so far to go in others.


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