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Posted by on Feb 4, 2008 in At TMV | 6 comments

The Democrats: 48 Years and a Lifetime Later, In the Presence of Greatness. Again



It was the weekend before the 1960 election and my mother and I were patiently waiting in front of the tiny passenger terminal at the airport outside of Wilmington, Delaware. It didn’t matter that the candidate was over an hour late when the Caroline, his powder-puff blue and white campaign plane, finally dropped out of the sky and taxied toward the chain-link fence that stood between 2,000 or so people and the next president of the United States.

The moment that John F. Kennedy walked toward the crowd and held out his hand to me is indelible: His steely yet warm gaze, those incredible greenish-gray eyes, every hair on his head catching and reflecting the sun just right. Gleaming teeth. The kind of smile you would save for an old friend.

I wondered why he was alone. Where was Jackie? But the thought quickly passed as he grasped my hand and squeezed it ever so slightly. I expected his hand to feel rough and calloused, but in the instant we touched before he moved on down the fence line, it seemed soft and warm.

Barack Obama does that to people, too. He

inspires, projecting the feeling that you are in the presence of greatness, that history is being made before your very eyes. That in a time that cries out for leadership and change, he will be able to deliver.

And so it was that 48 years after my close encounter with JFK my son and I stood amidst a crowd of 20,000 people (or about one in 45 Delawareans ) packed into and surrounding Wilmington’s Rodney Square yesterday afternoon as Obama did his version of a fly-by two days before voters in Delaware and 21 other states cast their Super Tuesday ballots.

Obama, standing in the shadow of a statue of Caesar Rodney, the patriot who broke the deadlock over signing the Declaration of Independence after his famous (at least to Delaware schoolchildren) 80-mile ride through a thunderstorm from Dover to Philadelphia, invoked frequent references to hope and change and intimated that John McCain would be his opponent in the fall campaign.

In a barbed rejoinder to Hillary Clinton’s charge that he is a naive hope-monger, Obama fired back, declaring:

“This is not blind ignorance. This is not ignorance of barriers that stand in the way. It’s just the opposite. . . . Nothing worthwhile in this country has never happened unless somewhere someone had hopes.”

Obama also offered specifics on the shape of the domestic and foreign policies that he would push for as president in the course of a 45-minute address, a stump-speech makeover that is a result of criticism that he had been hiding behind generalities.

* * * * *

As Frank Rich noted with a canny sense of timing in a New York Times column that I read in Rodney Square while we waited for Obama’s right-on-time arrival, JFK also was seen as an ambitious but superficial upstart with few policy ideas and was too Catholic to be president, as well. Obama, of course, carries the “burden” of being an African-American.

How, asks Rich:

“Did the fairy-tale prince from Camelot vanquish a field of heavyweights led by the longtime liberal warrior Hubert Humphrey?

“It wasn’t ideas. It certainly wasn’t experience. It wasn’t even the charisma that Kennedy would show off in that fall’s televised duels with Richard Nixon.”

JFK speechwriter Richard Goodwin answers that question this way:

“He had to touch the secret fears and ambivalent longings of the American heart, divine and speak to the desires of a swiftly changing nation — his message grounded on his own intuition of some vague and spreading desire for national renewal.”

While I was still in my teens when JFK was taken from us a mere three years after I shook his hand, I had some vague inkling then and came to understand later after covering the first several of eight presidential campaigns as a reporter and editor that he also had something else — plain old luck.

Kennedy’s margin of victory over Nixon was razor thin and, some direhards still charge, because of vote manipulation mischief in Chicago that was not unlike the funny business in Florida that enabled George Bush to slink past Al Gore. Not incidentally, that probably was the last time Bush, who as president has been so bad and so reviled that he hasn’t been able to make his own luck, got lucky.

I will cast my vote in the Delaware primary tomorrow for hope and change, but also for luck.

This is because Obama will need bucketsful of that precious commodity if he is to break even with Hillary Clinton in the delegate count in the big Super Tuesday states because she is better organized, has the party ties that accrued to Humphrey in 1960 and, after all, profers a message with its own appeal.

I had thought as recently as last September when the presidential campaigns were revving up that Obama, as some JFK detractors believed, could stand another four years of seasoning. But as I came to understand that Obama’s message was resonating so deeply that his time is 2008, not 2012 or later.

Obama’s time is indeed now — at the end of a failed presidency in an America desperate for new direction. Nevertheless, I felt a twinge of sadness as I stood with my son and listened to his inspiring oratory because I also understand that the forces driving the status quo are putting their enormous clout behind Hillary Clinton, and no amount of hope and wishful thinking nor a candidate as dynamic as Obama can change that.

It was an inspiring afternoon, but I fear that in the end it just was a whistlestop on Barack Obama’s quest for an impossible dream.

PHOTOGRAPHS: (1960) Jacques Lowe, (2008) Suchat Pederson

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice

    I will personally be happy if I live to see a time when JFK and Reagan aren’t the respective touchstones of presidential greatness. Both are touchstones of presidential charisma, but it’s so often the presidents who are less attractive who are most effective in the office. JFK made a lot of very serious mistakes while in office. If he’d lived, poor man, I imagine a lot of them would have come home to roost. And I am not going to say what I think about Ronald Reagan.

    As for Obama, I see the charisma and the ability to bring an audience to its feet. But when I look at his platform, I see nothing to make me prefer him to Hillary Clinton. And while I can at least trust Hillary to do the politic thing in office, I don’t know what Obama will do. One aspect of an effective president—W got this right at least—is a willingness to take an unpopular stand. I am okay with that as long as I have substantial faith in the judgment of the person in charge. I think Obama is persuasive (including on the issue of his judgment), but it seems for his supporters to be more an article of faith. I have lost all mine.

  • shaun


    So I can infer from your comment that Clinton has done “the politic thing” on Iraq as a senator? Pray tell what that might be?

    Or if elected president, which is a very real and in some senses welcome possibility, she will do “the politic thing” on Iraq, which will be to indefinitely support a war with no endgame that the American people overwhelmingly oppose.

    Is that what you mean by a willingness to take an unpopular stand?

  • DLS

    Comparison to JFK has been silly from the outset.

    More insightful is something like this:

    “The Kossacks and their activist allies — who skew toward the Boomers — believe that Republicans are venal bordering on evil, and that the way Democrats will win elections and hold power is to one-up Karl Rove’s divisive, bare-knuckled tactics. Their opponents within the party — who skew younger and freer of culture war wounds — believe that the way to win is offer voters a break from this poisonous tribal warfare and a compelling, inclusive vision for where we want to take the country.”

    “The best evidence that Kos-ism is about kaput, though, comes from Kos’s mouth himself. Yes, the most delicious irony of this campaign is that the supposed hatemonger is supporting the hopemonger.

    Seeing the writing on the wall, as well as on his own blog, Markos Moulitsas — Kos himself — rejected the candidacy he himself helped spawn and announced (albeit grudgingly) on Dec. 12 that he would be voting for Mr. Obama via “a process of elimination.”

    Not exactly the most graceful concession, but the import is undeniable: Hope trumped Kos for Democrats. Now let’s see what it will do for the rest of the country.”

  • Mike_P

    Up until a month or so ago, I was pretty neutral as far as the Democratic candidates went. I liked Biden, Dodd, Clinton and Obama, and felt I could easily live with any of them as the nominee. I still feel that way about the last two standing. Hillary would be a good, competent president. I think perhaps even better than her husband. But she starts the job with huge swaths of the electorate despising her. She unifies Republican congresscritters against her every move from day one. Perhaps she will be good enough to surmount that gridlock and inspire Congress and the American people to move forward. But it’ll be a come-from-way-behind victory to pull that off, and given the last 15 years, I have no faith she could, nor do I want those battles to start anew.

    That’s why I’ve come to believe Obama is the perfect candidate at precisely the right time. I believe he would provide a clean break from the past 15 years at a critical moment. His policies are perfectly sound, certainly as sound as Hillary’s, McCain’s etc. Plus he has the personal charisma and leadership ability to inspire the congress and citizenry to move forward. That is what both Roosevelts had, what Kennedy had, what Reagan had. No, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be another Roosevelt, and Kennedy and Reagan certainly have benefited from myth as much as accomplishment.

    But I think he represents such a break from the recent past that the nation, and also importantly, the world, will want him to succeed, and allow him to succeed more than any other candidate currently running. And without so much of the drama we have come to accept as “politics as usual.”

  • cosmoetica

    The claim that Obama is less experienced than Hillary is simply false- he has more legislative experience and both have equal executive experience- zero. Both have similar plans for the war and healthcare. Both are fairly well detailed, although neither are as detailed as Edwards’ was, nor as specific. And the R’s simply lack all ideas on the war and healthcare. But Obama stands taller for one big (and many little) reason- unlike Hillary he is not a proven quitter who plays to political convenience.

  • Kanzeon

    You’ve got to be kidding.

    Obama recites Republican talking points and pledges bipartisanship, “reaching across the aisle.”

    It’s a stale line, a trite empty promise. I have no idea why he would want to work with the Republicans that have marched in lockstep with the Bush administration the last eight years. His policies are virtually identical to Clinton’s. He isn’t offering change, he’s offering the oldest empty promise there is. You can determine it’s empty, because he has NO specifics.

    Whenever someone compares him to Kennedy, I remember that Kennedy won with the thinnest popular vote margin in history – against the least charismatic man in modern politics, Richard Nixon.

    McCain can beat Obama. He is a proven centrist, at least as far as the media is concerned, and an experienced legislator, a war hero, and has foreign policy credentials. McCain might defeat Clinton as well, because of the baggage of the long assault on the Clintons.

    Obama’s substanceless talk about hope might put him over the top in the general. But I doubt it’s going to go very far when things get nasty. But please, act like an educated, rational individual, and stop waxing poetic about your dead heroes. It’s embarrassing for you.

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