IN 1963, John F. Kennedy was murdered in Texas by a fervent admirer of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In 2008, a large Cuban flag emblazoned with the image of Che Guevara, Castro's brutal henchman, is prominently displayed in a Barack Obama campaign volunteer office in Houston.
Obama has been widely compared to JFK, most notably by the late president's brother and daughter. President Kennedy, a stalwart anticommunist, despised Castro and his gang of totalitarian thugs. But when word broke last week that Obama's supporters in Houston work under a banner glorifying Che, the campaign's reaction was to brush it off as an issue involving volunteers, not the official campaign. After two days of controversy, the campaign issued a statement calling the flag "inappropriate" and saying its display "does not reflect Senator Obama's views." Would JFK have reacted so mildly?
In December 1962, Kennedy offered a blunt summary of the Castro/Che record. "The Cuban people were promised by the revolution political liberty, social justice, intellectual freedom, land for the campesinos, and an end to economic exploitation," he said. "They have received a police state, the elimination of the dignity of land ownership, the destruction of free speech and a free press, and the complete subjugation of individual human welfare." Eleven months later, in a speech intended for delivery on the day he was assassinated, Kennedy regretted that Castro's "Communist foothold" in Latin America had "not yet been eliminated."
Were he alive today, it's hard to imagine JFK feeling anything but contempt for those who extol a dictatorship that has been crushing freedom and human beings for nearly 50 years. And it would surely pain him that so many of the cheerleaders are members of his own party.
The lionizing of Che, a sociopath who relished killing and acclaimed "the pedagogy of the firing squad," is not just "inappropriate." It is vile. No American in his right mind would be caught dead wearing a David Duke T-shirt or displaying a poster of Pol Pot. A celebrity who was spotted with a swastika-festooned cap or an actress who revealed that she had gotten a tattoo depicting Timothy McVeigh would inspire only repugnance. No presidential campaign would need more than 30 seconds to sever its ties to anyone, paid staffer or volunteer, whose office was adorned with a Ku Klux Klan banner. Yet Che's likeness, which ought to be as loathed as any of those, is instead a trendy bestseller and a cult favorite.
A few years ago the New York Public Library gift shop sold Che wristwatches. These it described as "featuring the classic romantic image of Che Guevara, around which the word 'revolution' revolves." But Che's idea of revolution was anything but romantic. What he cherished was hatred and murder: "Hatred as an element of struggle," he wrote in 1967, "unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine." It was a sentiment he expressed repeatedly - and lived up to.
With Che at his side, Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. "As soon as they had seized power," notes "The Black Book of Communism," a magisterial survey of communist crime in the 20th century, "they began to conduct mass executions inside the two main prisons, La Cabana and Santa Clara." As chief prosecutor of the new regime, Che oversaw the bloodbath, ordering hundreds of executions in the first months of 1959. Those he killed, "The Black Book" records, included "former comrades-in-arms who refused to abandon their democratic beliefs."
Like totalitarians of every stripe, Che didn't scruple at the death of innocents. "Quit the dallying!" he ordered Jose Vilasuso, a conscientious government lawyer who was seeking evidence against several prisoners. "Your job is a very simple one. Judicial evidence is an archaic and secondary bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! We execute from revolutionary conviction."
Time magazine once called Che the "brain of the Cuban Revolution, and saluted his "icy calculation, vast competence, high intelligence, and . . . perceptive sense of humor." A better description comes from journalist Humberto Fontova, who observes in "Exposing The Real Che Guevara" that Che was for Castro what Heinrich Himmer was for Hitler and Lavrenty Beria for Stalin - "the snarling enforcer." Fittingly, a massive drawing of Che adorns the headquarters of Cuba's secret police in Havana.
That this sadistic thug's face also adorns the office of a US presidential candidate's supporters is appalling and disgraceful. That the candidate couldn't bring himself to say so is even worse.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.