Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Commander in Crisis

By Shawn Healy
Today marks the 46th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a televised speech to the American people, President John F. Kennedy noted the presence of Soviet-installed, medium-range missiles stationed in Cuba capable of striking any number of American cities, including Washington, DC. He said the United States would not tolerate their continued presence a mere 80 miles away from the United States, and ordered a naval quarantine of the country to prevent further shipments from the Soviets. Our country stood on the cusp of nuclear war, and our young, relatively untested president refused to blink. The Soviet missiles were removed in exchange for a similar measure by the United States in Turkey, and a period of detente was ushered in as Cold War tensions thawed by necessity.

Fast forward to 2008. Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, speaking at a fundraiser in Seattle this past Sunday, warned on an imminent attack on the United States should his youthful and relatively inexperienced running mate win on November 4. Biden said, “Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here, if you don’t remember anything else I said. Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.” The Delaware senator went on to reassure his audience that Senator Obama is certainly up to the task.

This verbal gaffe, or backhanded compliment, drags the debate over foreign policy credentials back into the limelight during a time when domestic issues, namely our sagging economy, stand front and center. While Biden made a similar parallel to President Kennedy, the fact of the matter is that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred nearly two years into his presidency. True, the Bay of Pigs incident landed in his inaugural year, but this was manufactured by the CIA and approved by Kennedy himself. A stronger parallel lies with President George W. Bush, who faced the horrific attacks of September 11 a mere eight months into his presidency.

The McCain campaign was quick to pounce on the opening provided by Biden. McCain uttered echoes of Senator Hillary Clinton's now famous 3am phone call during the Democratic primaries, suggesting that “We don't want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars.”

At the same time, he also flaunted his own foreign policy bona fides: “Sen. Biden referred to how Jack Kennedy was tested in the Cuban missile crisis. My friends, I have a little personal experience in that. I was on board the USS Enterprise. I sat in the cockpit of the flight deck off of Cuba. I had a target. My friends, you know how close we came to a nuclear war. America will not have a president who needs to be tested. I've been tested, my friends.”

McCain, as I've said many times before, is more comfortable talking about foreign policy issues. Indeed, his call for additional troops in Iraq, the so-called surge, has been a defining staple of his second run for president. Poll numbers show Obama with a decided advantage on virtually every issue with the exception of the Iraq War and foreign policy more generally.

Obama's pick of Joe Biden was an acknowledgment of his weaknesses on this issue, reassuring voters that Biden will serve as a steady hand when the international chips are down as they inevitably fall during the first four years. However, Obama, too, based his campaign on issues of foreign policy, namely his early opposition to the Iraq invasion. He has continually cited this as evidence of his superior judgment, which in his mind, matters more than experience.

Biden's aside reminds us of the dual roles that our president serves. Not only is he head of government, helping to guide us through tumultuous economic times, but he is also head of state, managing our relationships with foreign powers. Our next commander-in-chief will face dual challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention an ever volatile Middle East more generally. He faces ripe political crises in Africa (Zimbabwe and Sudan top the list) and continued strides toward nuclear disarmament in North Korea. He must address a powder keg in Pakistan, and a rising nuclear power in India.

This is but a short list of the challenges awaiting either Senator McCain or Obama. A bright, sunny October morning brings back memories of a similar one 46 years ago when the world watched nervously as President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev clashed diplomatic swords. Thankfully, a young, charismatic chief executive stood firm and rose to the occasion. Here's hoping that our next commander-in-chief will continue this legacy, wherever and whenever duty calls.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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