JFK and Obama, Loners In Chief

Both JFK and Barack Obama were loners, but Kennedy still knew how to play the political game.

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First lady Michelle Obama (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama lay a wreath at the grave site for President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 20, 2013, in Arlington, Va. The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy will be marked on November 22.
First lady Michelle Obama (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama lay a wreath at the grave site for President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 20, 2013, in Arlington, Va. The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy will be marked on November 22.

Under the luster, the shining smile, quick wit, sonorous speech and athletic figure, the president was a loner. In one of those history rhymes, a close look at John Fitzgerald Kennedy's journey to the White House holds up a light to his alter-ego, Barack Obama. 

All of the above traits: That's a conclusion the "High Court of History" has reached about John Fitzgerald Kennedy – Jack to most. A keen reader and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer of history himself, Kennedy would likely accept that verdict. Ironic, cerebral and restless, always with his eye on the next thing. He thought constantly of the past and the future, perhaps knowing his time would be short. He had plenty of friends, more than he could count, who were crazy about him and eager to help him onto the next thing, whether it be the Senate or the White House. Besides which, family money and power was no object. But he was cool and that was part of his charm. Ditto for Obama, except lately his cool is wearing thin.

A finely drawn new book, "JFK in the Senate, Pathway to the Presidency," by John T. Shaw, illuminates the eight years Kennedy spent in the Senate, from January 1953 to December 1960, all during Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency. These eight years, Shaw shows, were a crucial training ground for presidential leadership. Kennedy was no giant of the Senate, but nor did he mean to be. When he was ailing, he missed votes that tested courage, namely the censure of demagogue Joseph McCarthy. He chaired exactly one committee, on history, which has largely been written off by history. Until now. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

In this stretch of time, Kennedy shrewdly used the Senate for all it was worth as a platform for running for president. In a cross-current against the usual hagiography, we learn Kennedy was a poor public speaker because of his high-pitched voice. He mastered the art by lots of practice, traveling nearly every weekend to civic groups across the nation, "seeking supporters at state capitals, state fairs, high school gyms, union halls, armories and coffee shops." The folks back home in Massachusetts loved Kennedy, but he took on a country full of constituents years before 1960, when he announced his candidacy for the highest office in the ornate Old Senate Office Building (now named for Richard Russell). 

"I have never seen anybody in my life develop like Jack Kennedy did as a personality, a speaker, over the last seven, eight years of his life. It was just a miracle transformation," George Smathers, a Senate colleague, said.

Kennedy had come close to being on the 1956 ballot as a candidate for vice president and boldly continued the quest from there, aiming even higher, to succeed Eisenhower. Born in 1890, the old general made a perfect foil for the young Kennedy, who made a point of saying he represented those "born in this century." At the dawn of a new decade, Kennedy succeeded in becoming a national figure despite his slender achievements as a senator.

Does this remind you of anyone in the first decade of the 21st century? Kennedy and Obama had both published two books each when they faced the national electorate. Kennedy was the author of "Profiles in Courage" and "Why England Slept." In our more self-involved era, Obama published a memoir, "Dreams From My Father," and "The Audacity of Hope." The similarities go on: They were the only two sitting senators elected to the presidency in nearly a century. They also chose old Senate bulls, Lyndon B. Johnson and Joseph Biden, as running mates to shore up their strength on Capitol Hill. They both put on self-deprecating masterpiece performances at the Gridiron Dinner, a way to make a splash in this town.  

[Read the U.S. News debate: Was JFK's Assassination a Conspiracy?]

Most importantly, given their brilliant fluency with words, Kennedy and Obama played an "outside game" to win the presidency, going straight to the American people without burnishing a place in the Senate pantheon. This gave each the aura of being men of the people – which, arguably, they were not. "Despite his warm friendships with many of the other senators of both parties, Senator Kennedy was a loner," his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, said. Obama can wait for the High Court of History, but for now it is striking how few friends the president has among politicians of both parties. 

But Kennedy respected the Senate as an institution more than Obama, who barely hid his boredom with its clubby ways. Kennedy served eight years, twice as long as Obama's four, and in that time chaired a special committee that became known as the Kennedy Committee. He got to know the elders, like Sen. Russell of Georgia. Charged with choosing the five greatest senators, its work has received little attention from scholars until now. But the assignment dovetailed with Kennedy's thirst for history, with lessons for now. He reached out to leading historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. As Shaw tells it, Kennedy orchestrated the final report in 1959, which received wide press coverage and resonated well with his own book on profiles in courage. Not so subtly, it associated him with greatness.

The picks for portraits in the Capitol were: antebellum Sens. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John Calhoun of South Carolina and Henry Clay of Kentucky. The 20th century men chosen were the progressive Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and Republican Robert Taft of Ohio. It was a job deftly done in a chamber ruled in seniority by the old South.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Shaw, who covers Congress for Market News International, states that Kennedy's evolution in the Senate meant that he mastered the nuances of American politics. He played the outside game, but he also knew the insiders code and the geography of power. After finishing the book, it occurred to me that that is precisely the seasoning Obama lacks. In his brief Senate career, he won over the late Edward M. Kennedy as an ally and a direct line to the Kennedy spark. Now Majority Leader Harry Reid is watching his back. 

But you find out who you can count on in a crisis. Kennedy huddled with advisors (including his brother) whom he trusted during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Obama, facing the dismal rollout of his signature health care reform, seems not to know where to turn.

For he is a loner at heart. This year has made that clearer than water. And as winter comes, his cool may feel cold. 

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