The family of the legendary leader, assassinated 50 years ago, passed Kennedy’s torch to Obama; now he tries to carry it with honor. Both presidents are marked by similar positions in history.
One of the key moments in the unforgettable 2008 presidential campaign happened on Jan. 28 at American University on the outskirts of Washington, when the late Senator Edward Kennedy, surrounded by other shining members of his family, including John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline, handed over the figurative torch lit by the murdered president to a young African-American, whose place in history was assured from that moment. “It is time again for a new generation of leadership. It is time now for Barack Obama,” said the man who was, at that point, the last custodian of the rich Kennedy heritage.
Obama arrived in U.S. politics to continue the legend that began 50 years ago in Dallas. Comparisons with Kennedy, both before and after the ceremony at American, have been constant. History will judge the actions of each after the end of the Obama administration and decide what their similarities were and which policies had the biggest impact. However, what can be said with certainty today is that, in a post and a country where symbols frequently have more significance than facts, President Kennedy and President Obama, each a milestone marking a new generation and a new attitude across the nation, share a stellar place in U.S. collective memory.
It is impossible to know whether the weight of this historical responsibility, of the comparisons with Kennedy, was in Obama’s mind last Wednesday as he bowed his head in front of the eternal flame that burns on Kennedy’s grave in Arlington cemetery. However, there can be no doubt that the shadow of Kennedy, which helped carry Obama to the White House, has since been a haunting and unrelenting presence, judging the new president’s painful fight with tough realities from an eternal position of immunity. This has never been truer than it is today, as Obama weathers the storm of his unpopularity.
Kennedy’s greatness — his management may be questionable, but not his historical significance — has already eclipsed many of his successors, starting with the most immediate, Lyndon Johnson; it has taken decades for the country to recognize, even in part, Johnson’s huge contribution to social justice and equal opportunities. Then there was the last Democrat to hold office before Obama, Bill Clinton, who was also compared with Kennedy as a young presidential candidate with a talent for winning public sympathy and defining his mission.
Clinton was with Obama in Arlington. The two are probably the most Kennedyesque presidents the country has produced in the last half-century, but while Clinton seems artificial, forced, clearly playing a role written into his political script, in Obama’s case the comparisons are justified. His presidency has been as transformational as Kennedy’s, with Kennedy as the youngest candidate and the first Catholic to become president, and Obama as the first black president.
Of all that Kennedy and Obama have in common, probably the most significant aspect is their ability to mobilize their respective generations, one under the flag of civil rights and the other in opposition to the war in Iraq. Kennedy inspired a country that had been immersed in the shame of racial segregation for 50 years, and Obama one that had been disgraced by constitutional abuses for five. After Kennedy, it was not until Obama that young people would once again want to display a president’s poster as a symbol of their identity. Perhaps this is partly due to a quality shared by the two men: a talent for oratory, for speeches that reach the heart. Obama’s “yes, we can,” although lighter and more superficial, like almost everything today, is the heir to Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Despite their different social origins, both Kennedy and Obama studied at the exclusive and distinguished Harvard University; the former because that was what was expected of the son of an influential Massachusetts family, and the latter, from a more modest background, as a reward for his effort and persistence.
Their different backgrounds did not stop both from becoming symbols of glamor and public interest. In Kennedy’s time, the cover of Life magazine dictated what was glamorous; now it is social networks. But both aroused the attention of their compatriots and citizens from around the world with the spontaneity of their behavior, the warmth of their smiles and their seemingly normal family lives.
In government, Kennedy and Obama have, obviously, had to contend with very different problems. Kennedy came to power at a time when ideology and principles meant everything, and tried to act in accordance with his faith in freedom and equal rights. Obama was elected in a post-ideological world, where the prejudices and walls that divided humanity in Kennedy’s time have fallen. However, at decisive points in their presidencies, both chose prudent and pragmatic solutions that could be said to define their mandates: Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and Obama in the diplomatic conflict with Iran.
The story is both fanciful and predictable. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, is now Obama’s ambassador to Japan, in whose waters her father fought during World War II. Who knows whether she might be back at American University in three years to take back the torch as the first woman president of the U.S. Who knows the extent of Jack’s immortality.