Harvard graduate with soaring rhetoric that inspires the masses?
Representative of formerly oppressed group that transcends narrow classifications?
These are but a few of the similarities swimming through my mind between then-candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy and presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama after a visit to the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston last Friday. The facility sits on the Boston Harbor overlooking the city that the martyred former president called home, and the permanent exhibit is a fitting record of a brief White House tenure whose mystique lives with us to this very day.
Kennedy was criticized as an alleged amateur who lacked foreign policy experience. His tenure in congress (14 years) far exceeded that of Obama (three years), but his opponent, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, contrasted his credentials with those of Kennedy, arguing that his executive experience made him a better candidate. While both Obama and McCain lack executive experience, the senior Arizona senator is likely to place his 24-year military career and 25-year congressional career beside that of his upstart opponent.
While Kennedy and Nixon both entered the halls of Congress during the same year, Nixon was seen as representative of the old guard, an extension of the country club Republicanism of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kennedy, by comparison, called for a New Frontier, a program hoping to transcend the liberal-conservative divides that paralyzed the country (and his party, for that matter). Obama also calls for a new "politics of hope," an America that is no longer broken down along rudimentary red and blue state dimensions. He faces an opponent that has a long reputation as a maverick, yet his opponents are attempting to classify him as little more than an extension of the widely unpopular Bush presidency, some going so far as to call him "John McBush.
Kennedy was the second Catholic to stand as his party's nominee, and the first (and only) Catholic ever elected president. Obama stands on the cusp of claiming the first major party nomination for an African-American candidate, and the odds-on favorite to stand as the first non-white president in American history. Kennedy gave a rousing speech dismissing any charges that he would take direction from the Pope in Rome, and Obama delivered a majestic oratory of his own clarifying his views on race and controversial ties to his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Kennedy was married to the patrician Jackie, who presided over a model family that reeked of youthful exuberance and the American Dream. Obama is married to the lovely Michelle, a Princeton and Harvard Law graduate herself, with two playful daughters, his family a picture of the possibilities offered by a country once torn over the institution and later the legacy of slavery.
Kennedy inspired a generation of young people to devote their lives to public service, and Obama, at least in his 15-month-old candidacy, has gathered a devoted following of new participants in the political process, hoping to ride their enthusiasm and efforts to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
I could continue with the many parallels between these two senators who would be president, but also find it important to identify differences that may prove important this fall. Kennedy came from Boston's aristocracy, while Obama bounced from Kansas to Indonesia to Hawaii over the course of his youth, his mother even relying on government assistance at times to raise him and his sister as a single parent. Kennedy was a war hero reminiscent of Obama's probable opponent this November, John McCain, while the junior Illinois senator has no national security experience other than his brief tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee. As I mentioned earlier, Kennedy was thrice elected to the House and twice elected to the Senate, while Obama is in the middle of his first Senate term with previous experience as an Illinois legislator.
What may be most intriguing is the process by which both candidates claimed the nomination. Not only did they win primaries that proved their abilities to transcend age-old stereotypes, Kennedy in West Virginia with a Protestant-heavy population, Obama in Wisconsin with its dominant white working class (as a side note, in an ironic twist of fate, the presumptive Democratic nominee this time around was trounced by his opponent in West Virginia by a 41 percent margin of defeat), but they also battled more established favorites for the party mantle. For Kennedy it was Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, the man he eventually selected as his running mate. For Obama it is the still-formidable former first lady and current New York Senator, Hillary Clinton. Will he act in his likeness and form the so-called "Dream Ticket?"
The latter question is a topic for a whole other debate, so I'll leave the question open for further consideration, but one cannot help but envision the debates and contrasts set to take place in the coming months. Will American voters cast their favor with an experienced hand who defends several policies closely associated with the most unpopular president in recent history, or try their lot with a man 25 years his junior that makes a case of superior judgment, and despite the rhetoric, many of his policies represent the traditional party line of his Democratic predecessors? The Vietnam War hero or the early Iraq War dissenter? The naval aviator or the community organizer and constitutional law professor?
Less than six months separate American voters from this monumental decision. Rest assured, it will be a closely contested and at times acrimonious affair. We would expect nothing less given the stakes. The 1960 contest was one of the closest in history, arguably coming down to Illinois and Texas. The two states are unlikely to play pivotal roles this time around, but we can predict the ones that will: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado, and probably a half dozen or so others. I'll surely break down this match-up on the ground level in the weeks and months ahead, but as Obama stands on the cusp of earning a majority of the elected delegates available this evening, history is in the making. Hold on tight, because this 15-month marathon will soon transform into a five-month sprint.
Before we buckle up, however, a nod to our past is warranted. Will Obama resurrect the path of the 35th president, or fall short as his youngest brother (Sen. Ted Kennedy) did in 1980, returning to the Senate for a distinguished career? The answer awaits us as soon as the summer wind fades to fall.