Ted Sorensen: Is Barack Obama the Next JFK?

As Ted Sorensen has already endorsed Barack Obama, we can guess how he answers the question he poses in the current issue of The New Republic. Sorensen begins by comparing the obstacles they faced, with Kennedy becoming the first Catholic President and Obama running to become the first black President. From there, he finds more similarities:

In addition to their similar handicaps, Kennedy and Obama share an extraordinary number of parallels. Both men were Harvard-educated. Both rose to national attention almost overnight as the result of starring roles at the nationally televised Democratic convention preceding their respective candidacies: Kennedy in 1956, when he delivered the speech nominating Stevenson and subsequently came close to winning an open-floor struggle for the vice presidential nomination with Estes Kefauver; Obama in 2004, by virtue of his brilliant speech to the convention that year in Boston.

Both also gained national acclaim through their best-selling inspirational books–Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, published in 1956, and Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006. Both men immediately stood out as young, handsome, and eloquent new faces who attracted and excited ever larger and younger crowds at the grassroots level, a phenomenon that initially went almost unnoticed by Washington leaders and experts too busy interviewing themselves.

Kennedy’s speeches in early 1960 and even earlier, like Obama’s in early 2007, were not notable for their five-point legislative plans. Rather, they focused on several common themes: hope, a determination to succeed despite the odds, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and confidence in the judgment of the American people. In sprinkling their remarks with allusions to history and poetry, neither talked down to the American people. JFK was so frank about his disagreements with the leadership of his Catholic “base” that one Catholic journal editorialized against him; Obama was equally frank and courageous with the Democrats’ organized labor base in assessing the competitive prospects of the American auto industry in Detroit. Both were unsparing in their references to the “revolving door” culture in Washington.

On foreign policy, both emphasized the importance of multilateral demo- cracy, national strength as a guardian of peace, and the need to restore America’s global standing, moral authority, and leadership. Both warned of the dangers of war: Kennedy motivated by his own harsh experience in World War II, Obama by his familiarity with suffering in all parts of the world. Both were cerebral rather than emotional speakers, relying on the communication of values and hope rather than cheap applause lines.

Perhaps most tellingly, both preached (and personified) the politics of hope in contrast to the politics of fear, which characterized Republican speeches during their respective eras. In 1960 and earlier, cynics and pessimists accepted the ultimate inevitability of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, much as today they assume a fruitless and unending war against terrorism. Hope trumped fear in 1960, and I have no doubt that it will again in 2008.

Sorensen believes there is another important similarity–the abilitiy to win:

Above all, after eight years out of power and two bitter defeats, Democrats in 1960, like today, wanted a winner–and Kennedy, despite his supposed handicaps, was a winner. On civil rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the race to the moon, and other issues, President Kennedy succeeded by demonstrating the same courage, imagination, compassion, judgment, and ability to lead and unite a troubled country that he had shown during his presidential campaign. I believe Obama will do the same.

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