quinta-feira, 15 de janeiro de 2009

BBC: Black Camelot - Obama echoes JFK's Camelot romance

By Nick Bryant
BBC News

A debonair 40-something Senator, with a toothy smile and a lofty turn of phrase.

A made-for-television First Family. A fashion-forward First Lady. Generational change at a time of national self-doubt. No wonder the chatter in Washington is of a Black Camelot, with Barack Obama cast as Jack Kennedy, and his wife, Michelle, playing Jackie.

Stepping before the press for the first time as President-elect, with his heavily pregnant wife looking on, JFK joked that he looked forward to a new administration and a new baby.

Barack Obama, of course, produced a similarly memorable flourish by promising his girls a new puppy.

By strange coincidence, these two young presidents - JFK was 43 when he took the oath of office, while Mr Obama will be four years older - have also inherited a comparable set of challenges.

In 1960, after eight years of Republican rule, the US economy had flat-lined (though admittedly it was not in its present, doom-laden state), American diplomacy was in urgent need of renewal, and the nation's self-certainty had been rocked by the launch in 1957 of Sputnik 1, a showy piece of galactic one-upmanship which fuelled fears that the Kremlin was winning the Cold War.


Mr Kennedy won that year's close-fought presidential election by promising to "get the country moving again", a phrase that reappeared in some of Mr Obama's own stump speeches.

The scale of President-elect Obama's victory was much bigger, but so, too, are the dimensions of the problems: an economy in its most febrile state since the Great Depression and troops engaged in two difficult wars.

The Kennedy family
The Kennedys presented a picture-perfect family

So can he emulate the political and reputational success of Kennedy, who was cruising towards a second term when his life came to such an abrupt and violent end, and who continues to be revered by so many Americans?

In comparing their pre-presidential lives, it is clear that Mr Obama is less travelled than his globe-trotting predecessor, and cannot boast the same brave story of wartime derring-do.

He also lacks the legislative experience of JFK, who served 14 years on Capitol Hill compared with his own, rather meagre, four.

Talent pool

For all that, Mr Obama appears temperamentally well-suited to the demands of the modern presidency and is much more serious-minded and hard-working.

Whereas Jack Kennedy was a "playboy president" - his time in office has been labelled the "thousand days", but is almost as noteworthy for its "thousand nights" - Mr Obama exhibits an almost monastic self-discipline.

The new president-elect can also draw on a vast intellectual blood-bank of advisers and aides.

Kennedy, by contrast, tended to rely on a small coterie of overworked New Frontiersman.

The Kennedy presidency... looked staggeringly beautiful [but] it achieved little of great substance during the first twenty months

His most trusted adviser, Theodore Sorensen, not only drafted the inaugural address, along with all the set-piece speeches, but drafted many of his legislative proposals.

JFK's brother, Bobby, served both as attorney general, de facto national security adviser and round-the-clock presidential counsellor.

Mr Obama can draw from a deeper pool of talent, as he has shown with his high-level appointments.

In considering the Kennedy presidency, there has also been a mistaken tendency to focus solely on its beginning and end - the majesty of the inaugural address and the mayhem of Dallas.

Style over substance

Often forgotten is that prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the Kennedy presidency had failed to meet expectations.

Barack and Michelle Obama
After generating so much hope, expectations are already stretched

While at the symbolic level, it looked staggeringly beautiful, it achieved little of great substance during the first 20 months.

Kennedy's early months as president were blighted by the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba, and his lacklustre performance at the first summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in June.

It persuaded the Soviet leader to go ahead with the erection of the Berlin Wall.

On the domestic front, Kennedy was bullied on Capitol Hill by crotchety Democratic lawmakers, most of them diehard segregationists from the south, who gutted his legislative programme.

On civil rights, he delayed a swathe of much-needed reforms, out of fear of splitting his party.

In matters of domestic and foreign policy, the first half of the truncated Kennedy presidency offers a playbook of how not to perform the job.

Great expectations

The paradox is that so much romance is attached to the memory of Camelot - a myth-laden term that was coined by Jackie Kennedy in her first interview following her husband's death - that it creates an irksome burden of expectation.

A keen student both of his own mistakes and those of others, Obama will seek to avoid the errors of all his Democratic forebears.

The liberal overreach and over-confidence of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The timidity of Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was hobbled by stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The chaos of the Clinton White House, especially in its early days when it erred over injudicious appointments and the desire to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

After Barack Obama's performances during the campaign - and perhaps most memorably on the night of his victory - few will be surprised if he matches the eloquence of Kennedy's inaugural address.

But while Kennedy addressed the nation from the east steps of the Capitol, while Mr Obama will appear on the west.

Aptly, it affords him a marvellous view of the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the Washington Mall, where the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr also spoke of the urgent need for change.

Nick Bryant is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality

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