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This JFK is not that JFK

MY LIBERAL FRIENDS were quite unhappy with me recently when I suggested in this column that this new JFK, is -- in the words of Lloyd Bentsen's put-down of Dan Quayle -- "no Jack Kennedy." Not that they necessarily thought me wrong, of course; they just thought it was mean of me to say it (these, of course, are the same people who think nothing at all of routinely dismissing Dubya as mean-spirited, arrogant, and dumb as a post; my remark, I'm to understand, was merely opinion, and hateful opinion at that; they, on the other hand, merely state fact). So let me put it another way: John Kerry's bigger problem is not that he's not Jack Kennedy; it's that he's not Ted Kennedy.

One of my colleagues at Princeton said recently that if one went to Google and typed in the word "waffle," Kerry's name would come up. I haven't checked it out, but a newly reported Los Angeles Times poll found that nearly half of voters questioned called Kerry a flip-flopper. One didn't need the poll, though, to know that. When Kerry's campaign makes it into the news these days, the stories are generally, and quite frequently, about Kerry's persistent search for a theme, the attempt to define a reason for his campaign beyond the mere fact that Dubya is Dubya and Kerry isn't.

Ted Kennedy has caught grief for years for freezing when he was asked why he wanted to be president. His answer, you recall, was essentially, "duh." A lot of us have had fun with that (when I was teaching at Harvard I used that moment as an example of why one should have clearly in mind his or her purpose in running -- why a candidate should be able to articulate the passions that drive him or her to seek the power to shape public policy. But fair is fair: Ted Kennedy was caught off guard with a question he wasn't expecting, but there can be no doubt that Ted Kennedy, unlike John Kerry, knows precisely what he's about. Kennedy is an effective -- and respected -- senator because he knows what he believes. It is not in comparison with Senator Kennedy's brother that Kerry suffers (there have been few Jack Kennedys, after all), but in comparison with his fellow senator from Massachusetts. This is the question one might ask of John Kerry. Don't you have even the foggiest idea what it is that you believe? Do you really need to gather a dozen advisers to figure out what your campaign is about? Because in the end, simply being "not Dubya" is probably not going to cut it. Mr. Reagan and Mr. BushMuch has been written by Bush supporters attempting to show that W is a latter-day Ronald Reagan. Bush-bashers, on the other hand, in a bizarre twist (some of us remember the Reagan-bashing of old) attack Bush for not being a Reagan. There are similarities between the two, both in terms of policy (support for lower taxes, determination to meet perceived threats) and personality (cheerful, warm), and there are differences (Reagan gave lip service to so-called "social conservatism" whereas Bush embraces it; Reagan was a natural negotiator whereas Bush seems less inclined in that direction). But Reagan's death has caused Americans to remember his presidency, and most liked it. Reagan ran for high office (governor of California and president) five times (the last being the first George Bush's election as a presumed continuation of the Reagan presidency), and he won by landslides each time (To be fair, he tried to run one other time, in 1976, but failed to win the nomination.) If Kerry is indeed perceived as the candidate of muddled thought, convoluted speech, dour demeanor, hand-wringing uncertainty, and a willingness to let the UN call the shots on America's response to threat, the renewed public focus on the Reagan presidency will be no help.Beyond Kerry's controlFate has a way of sticking its nose in. And not only in the attention being paid again to Reagan's presidency. Kerry has been counting on making inroads in Louisiana. It's a poor state, in which economic disparities might play to Kerry's favor. But the state Senate there, reflecting what is certainly a majority view in the state, has voted overwhelmingly to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The left still thinks the political world is divided along lines of class and economy, but increasingly it's the cultural divide -- the religious versus the secular, the traditional versus the "modern" -- that separates red state voters from blue state voters, and issues like this one, played out beyond Kerry's reach, will have an impact. Same with the labor union disputes threatening to disrupt the Democratic national convention: Massachusetts is a "labor" state, but not many other places are, and how that act plays out (let's see now, Menino and Kerry want workers to cross the picket line?) will not go unnoticed, either by those sympathetic to organized labor or by those who are less so. Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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