Few will disagree that it is very rare for a candidate with as little experience in politics and government as Obama to capture the imagination of so many influential Americans. One way for a candidate like this to minimize his lack of experience is to pluck from the past the names of great presidents who also, supposedly, lacked experience. Early in the campaign, Obama's backers likened him to the supposed neophyte John F. Kennedy. More recently, some have pointed out (as did New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others) that Abraham Lincoln served only one "undistinguished" term in the House before he was elected president in 1860.Since it is common knowledge that the Pulitzer Prize won by John Kennedy was for a book actually written by his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, while his earlier book, which supposedly evidenced how he "closely studied" foreign policy, was a mediocre doctoral thesis re-written by columnist (and Joe Kennedy toady) Arthur Krock, I suppose it would be nice if the Times were to actually find a real historian who could write on this subject.
These comparisons distort the past beyond recognition. By the time he ran for president, JFK had served three terms in the House and twice won election to the Senate, where he was an active member of the Foreign Relations Committee. In total, he had held elective office in Washington for 14 years. Before that, he was, of course, a decorated veteran of World War II, having fought with valor in the South Pacific. Kennedy, the son of a U.S. ambassador to Britain, had closely studied foreign affairs, which led to his first book, "Why England Slept," as well as to a postwar stint in journalism.
Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect respect for the basic facts -- and not contribute to cheapening the historical currency.
January 26, 2008
Heal Thyself: Clinton supporter Sean Wilentz, on comparisons between Barack Obama and JFK: