While the youngest man elected to the presidency seems only to grow in stature with each passing year, his two immediate successors, two of the ablest and experienced politicians ever to get to the White House, became somewhat unhinged while there and both were driven from power. That’s worth considering the next time you hear someone talking about “rolling the dice.”
Before John F. Kennedy ascended to the presidency at age 43, his opponents had described him variously as shallow, inexperienced, an indifferent legislator and the creation of his wealthy father. Many of the Democratic Party’s liberals were suspicious of him and still emotionally committed to the 1952 and 1956 candidate, Adlai Stephenson. Some of the party’s most illustrious stars were horrified at the Massachusetts senator’s victories in the primaries. Harry S. Truman asked: “Are you quite ready?” and petulantly demanded that he withdraw from the race. (Truman was then the last Democratic president and eight years out of office. Sound familiar?)
In fact, JFK had a complex and subtle view of the world. He ruffled the feathers of the foreign policy establishment in 1957 with his statement that Algeria should have its independence, a farseeing view at a time when even much of the French left still opposed it.
He guided the world from a more dangerous place and had to take on some of his most senior generals to do it. Meanwhile those who’ve argued that he would have avoided the tragic morass that became Vietnam are getting the upper hand in that decades’ old debate.
The 35th president understood how to use power. The office is not like that of French president, the British prime minister or the Irish taoiseach, for whom effectiveness depends almost wholly on having a disciplined working majority. Because the executive and legislative branches are separate the American president depends to a greater degree on the good will of the people, and here is where “rhetoric” and values come into play.
Henry Kissinger said in 1960 that policies and programs were not so important that year (and the programs of the main Democratic contenders aren’t hugely different in 2008); instead, the future secretary of state said, the voters wanted to feel that they were entering a new “epoch” and that there was a new “spirit” in the land. Ultimately JFK’s optimistic vision, many historians agree, helped created the momentous period of change that we now call the “Sixties,” not just in America, but in Western Europe, too.
Listen to Senator Barack Obama and you can detect a rather subtle view of presidential power, which has at its core the confidence that if the American people really want something then they’ll get it. Much of it has to do with accountability.
Hillary Clinton, in outlining her alternative view of getting things done, referenced LBJ’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many people undoubtedly overreacted to her views on this, thinking she was downplaying the role of Martin Luther King Jr. She wasn’t, not deliberately. But we can understand why they are upset. Here is someone who wrote famously that when raising a child “it takes a village” but she now claims that on civil rights “it took a president.”
Actually, let’s consider the context. LBJ, in his role as senate majority leader (still the youngest man ever to hold the job), engineered the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1957 with the support of reactionary Southern Democrats or Dixiecrats. President Eisenhower, and many northern Republicans to his right, backed it, too, though they thought it watered down to an absurd degree. MLK reluctantly went along with it as a beginning, but stepped up the non-violent resistance to Jim Crow, a campaign that was already several years old.
With the advent of the Kennedy Administration, the civil rights movement had for the first time an ally in the White House. Certainly the administration proceeded with caution, but its commitment to fairness and desegregation was absolutely clear-cut. As vice-president, Johnson was more gung-ho about civil rights than the president and his brother, the attorney general. LBJ wanted to bully the South into submission, using economic threats. But when his time came, after Nov. 22, 1963 — and with King’s campaign stronger than ever — he passed his Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the name of the dead president, who had framed the issue in moral terms.
These are the parts of the story that Hillary Clinton omitted. Much more serious was her husband’s deliberate twisting of Obama’s views after he’d said that Ronald Reagan was a “transformative” president. This is something that most historians, political scientists and commentators agree on. Yet apparently it’s taboo for a Democratic politician to even mention it.
There’s something unseemly about a former president insulting and patronizing a possible successor — it was for Truman and it is for Bill Clinton. But the Karl Rovian twist to the latter’s naked appeal to the Democratic base is particularly unsettling.
Obama’s position that neither Richard Nixon nor Clinton himself was a transformative president is again a perfectly respectable view. Perhaps the 37th and 42rd chief executives, though both brilliant politicians, were too divisive, being lightning rods for the hatred from the other side, even as they tried to govern from the center.
It should be added, perhaps, that it only seems like Nixon governed from the center in retrospect. That was, after all, before Ronald Reagan. That two-term Republican dragged America to the right, did it with a smile and took a section of the Democratic heartland with him, for good measure,
After the micromanagement of Jimmy Carter, the veteran conservative offered a vision in broad strokes. The Democrats have been trying to catch up ever since.
In 1992, they preferred the safer wonkish and technocratic approach. Competence is king, idealism can wait, was the view.
That’s not to say that Bill Clinton wasn’t a good president, nor that Hillary mightn’t be a better one. But she is, as John Edwards said, the status quo candidate. After another eight years of Republican rule, the instinct of some Democrats is to play safe again.
The difference this time is that we’re 16 more years on from the 1960s and the generation that became politically aware in that decade has become a little smug and self-satisfied. For those of among them who are running the Democratic Party, Clinton, who can represent both non-change and change at the same time, is the perfect candidate.
However, it’s hard not to believe that Howard Dean (born in 1948), for example, or Chuck Schumer (1950) didn’t cringe when they heard Obama being derided for raising “false hope”?
Few would want a rerun of the tumult of the 1960s, but our democracy needs renewal. Barack Obama, whose gifts make him the candidate most likely to bring change, has already begun the process during this presidential campaign.