I’ve voted in and closely watched a good number of presidential elections. Okay I’m a borderline political junky. The two candidates about whom I was most passionate — with whom I most identified — were John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. No contest. As it happens, they are a perfect duo when considering dreams, myths and reality. Kennedy and Obama are connected in numerous ways. While their family backgrounds are worlds apart, they are both examples of what Lyndon Johnson called “Harvards”: JFK the moneyed patrician, Obama the intellectual patrician. But perhaps more than anything else they came before us voters at a young age. In their time they personified youth, or to use one of Kennedy’s favorite words, “vigor”. The youngest elected (TR was the youngest to take office) JFK was also the first president born in the 20th Century, our century. Obama, the fifth youngest elected, built his campaign around enthusiastic young supporters.
Whatever the magic mix of their personas, these men as candidates evoked visceral emotion. They made us dream in a special way. Forgetting for a moment the adage that campaigning and governing are two entirely different things; what I’m thinking about here has to do with the measure of how presidencies are assessed. In part that assessment involves how much of the dream going in translates into accomplishment. It is also in that assessment where myth comes into play. That is especially the case with Jack Kennedy. Thanks to an assassin, his time in office was relatively short and in part because of how he died, myth took over almost immediately and has hardly abated. Historians objectively assessing his stewardship of the office and his accomplishments would not include him in the pantheon of the greats, certainly no Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. Nonetheless he remains more than a half-century on an iconic figure, the kind that evokes in his countless fans, “don’t bother me with the facts”. Why is that the case?
The early violent death is one reason, perhaps compounded and reinforced in brother Bobby’s poignant murder five years later. Then too, there is that, despite a disastrous start, he ultimately successfully stood down Khrushchev averting a possible nuclear war. Anyone who lived through those terrifying thirteen days will never forget the relief. Cuba was the backdrop for both his gross misstep and then his most significant triumph. Kennedy grew in the office, perhaps no more so than in how his views and actions on civil rights took a dramatic turn culminating in his afternoon embrace of the 1963 March on Washington, albeit after a cool and cautious morning start. All of this is widely covered in the many volumes written about him. I’d like to suggest that something else, perhaps more important is at play here: dreams. Dreams precede a president’s taking of office and they linger on often in a most forgiving way when his candidacy evokes deep passion and emotion, especially when his espoused dreams coincide powerfully with our own.
One thousand days is a very generous period of grace, but coming off the depressing 1950s it’s not all that surprising. We were all yearning for something different, and Kennedy’s ability to grow, indeed change, gave both him and us license. We can legitimately argue about how much growth and change, but even critical historians tend to concede both were happening. What I’m suggesting here is that Kennedy never moved from the glow of campaign mode — the dream stage — in his supporters and many in the greater public’s minds. The foreshortened presidency never allowed for the usual transition to the post campaign reality by which we usually measure of the occupant’s tenure. Left with only dreams a leap to myth is just a small step.
The dream phase of Obama’s presidency, now winding toward its constitutionally mandated end, is long since over. This is not to suggest that it is no longer in the minds of those whose votes elected him. Indeed, he continues to be measured against those dreams brought on by promises made or perceived. Dreams are wonderful and can, often do, contribute to victory. They also embody some hazard. Some of Obama’s strongest critics have been supporters who have been disappointed with his translation from dreams into the necessary reality. It’s that difference between campaign “poetry” and the “prose” of governing. Governing is the reality that follows the grace period and then dominates. It’s what Kennedy never had and on which Obama in the fullness of his presidential time will be judged by history. Sure those who continue to be fans, myself included, will never forget the dreams, the “yes we can”, but that particular glow will diminish with time. It may be recognized as an important part of his biography, but won’t have the emotional pull of “now”.
In that sense the Obama presidency will be ordinary in that historians will weigh its accomplishments against what he promised and, to some significant degree, what was achieved relative to the records of the forty-three presidents who came before him. As said in my previous post, presidential assessments are tricky. I firmly believe Obama will fair well — he certainly will always be remembered as our first African American chief executive — but it’s far too early for history’s retrospective judgment. Many factors will go into that judgment mix including his extraordinary gifts as an orator. A number of his speeches will assuredly be judged as classics and thanks to contemporary technology future generations will be able to hear and see them as well as read their well-crafted texts. They will hear his campaign speech on race, his singing of Amazing Grace in Charleston his stirring words at the foot of the Pettis Bridge, and of course the one that brought him to national attention at 2004’s DNC convention.
I’ve been contrasting campaign dreams and reality to governance suggesting why Kennedy’s lingering dreams morphed into myth while reality will define Obama. This is not to suggest that myth does not attach itself to other presidents, perhaps most of all to Lincoln another fallen hero. FDR certainly basks in the glow of some myth and in the near term, for Republicans at least, so does Ronald Reagan. There’s always been the myth of George Washington and his fictional cherry tree and the myth that makes us overlook Thomas Jefferson’s human frailties. Fact is, we humans need myths and always have. We need myths and equally so we need dreams. They sustain us when we’re overcome by reality and they arm us with the will to move forward. That’s always been true, perhaps all the more so this election year.