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Tilting at Windmills

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January 3, 2008

ASK NOT....One of the more common historical analogies of this year's presidential race is drawing a connection between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. Theodore Sorensen, the legendary JFK speechwriter, has himself promoted the similarities heavily, and it's not at all unusual to hear voters sympathetic to Obama make the same link.

I suspect even most Obama backers would concede, though, that it's an imprecise comparison. In a new web-only feature here at the Monthly, the New America Foundation's Ted Widmer, a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton in his second term, highlights the very different paths the two took on route to presidential campaigns.

One of the natural similarities is, of course, youth. In 1960, JFK was 43 -- three years younger than Obama is now. But Widmer notes that Kennedy's experiences were far different than those of the senator from Illinois.

The more one looks into Kennedy's lifelong preparation for the job, the more one realizes how misleading it was, then and now, to describe him as inexperienced. [...]

Kennedy, of course, was a decorated veteran of World War Two, which he fought in the South Pacific. But before and after the conflict, he had acquired travel experiences that most people take a lifetime to accumulate, richly detailed in biographies like Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life.... He maintained this lively interest in world affairs as a young Congressman. In 1951 he went on two extraordinary journeys, the first a five-week trip to Europe, from England to Yugoslavia, to consider the military situation on the continent. Then, a few months later, a seven-week, 25,000-mile trek that included Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, French Indochina, Korea and Japan. It was this trip, in particular, that awakened a sense in him that the old colonial empires were doomed, and that the French effort to keep Vietnam was especially futile.

Widmer makes a strong case that when it comes to foreign policy experience, Kennedy and Obama have backgrounds that vary widely. Take a look.

Steve Benen 5:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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Welcome to insomniacs anonymous. Our group leader today will be Steve.

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on January 3, 2008 at 5:47 AM | PERMALINK

Do they serve coffee at Insomniacs Anonymous meetings?

Posted by: bob on January 3, 2008 at 5:53 AM | PERMALINK

Excellent piece. Obama might well make a great president-if he wins the nomination-but the starry-eyed articles about him are usually not very informative. It's time to see him as he really is-an extremely intelligent, likable man with little practical experience for the job. He would probably make a fine president someday-but he needs to broaden his experience first. It's just that simple. This is no time for a newbie.

Posted by: mollycoddle on January 3, 2008 at 6:27 AM | PERMALINK

There has been very little reality-based examination of Obama. For an additional realistic look at Obama read New York Times article "Obama's Account of New York Years Often Differs from What Others Say" by Janny Scott. Too many in the media have tried to imbue Obama with some sorts of noble and heroic attributes he does not have and has not earned.

Posted by: Chrissy on January 3, 2008 at 7:36 AM | PERMALINK

> It was this trip, in particular, that
> awakened a sense in him that the old
> colonial empires were doomed, and that
> the French effort to keep Vietnam was
> especially futile.

Which is why he escalated US commitment in Vietnam to the French and their puppet governments rather than brokering a peace treaty with the nationalists I guess? There is a bit of a disconnect there I am not getting.


Posted by: Cranky Observer on January 3, 2008 at 7:45 AM | PERMALINK

...Ted Widmer, a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton ...

As the Brits say, "he would say that wouldn't he?"

Posted by: Fuzzy on January 3, 2008 at 7:46 AM | PERMALINK

Our means of electing presidents has never been particularly well set up to reward experience. What's more, most of the great Presidents didn't have it. FDR had been governor of New York for all of four years when he became President, for instance. Lincoln had much less experience. Washington, of course, had even less. As for Kennedy...

This article notwithstanding, JFK didn't have much he could call an accomplishment when he ran for President. It made LBJ incredulous, thinking incorrectly that achievement in the Senate should be a prerequisite for the office, and claiming of Kennedy that "He didn't do anything" there. [I'm paraphrasing. Johnson probably said something considerably more vulgar.]

Obama's gotten where he has because his message has resonated with so many people, particularly Democrats but also Independents and even Republicans. Only Reagan has had a similar effect in my lifetime. FDR's the other comparison that comes to mind. And I say this not assuming that Obama is perfect, nor that he'd have as successful a presidency as those two. Who knows? But much of the job is messaging, and he's got that skill. It's fun to watch.

Posted by: mrsaturdaypants on January 3, 2008 at 8:02 AM | PERMALINK

By any objective yardstick JFK was an abysmal President, a consistently bailed-out playboy that made GWB look like a responsible titan of industry. The only redeeming features that salvaged his reputation were the things he shares with Obama -- an ability to inspire people and explain himself and our policies in a way that motivated others to accomplish great things.

Posted by: mr insensitive on January 3, 2008 at 8:04 AM | PERMALINK

The comparisons are proffered by those in the media so lacking imagination, insight, and industry, such that they rely largely on cliche.

Ever notice, for example, that the media attaches the word "gate" to just about every emerging scandal?

Posted by: Chris Brown on January 3, 2008 at 8:18 AM | PERMALINK

Obama does not have the experience required to hold such a high office, kind of like Bush in that respect, but I am a Democrat and I would rather switch sides and vote for Huckabee before Obama, but I would almost bet the next President will be a female regardless of how many of you dislike that thought, but regardless anyone would be better than what we have now by for.

Posted by: Al on January 3, 2008 at 8:19 AM | PERMALINK

No Mrsaturdaypants, Obama has gotten where he has because the media played up and promoted an inexperienced, unqualified, untested "image" that has nothing to do with reality. Just like they did with George W. Bush in '99. They filled in the missing parts of an empty suit with a phony narrative and some people fell for it, just as they did with George W. Bush.

Posted by: Chrissy on January 3, 2008 at 8:34 AM | PERMALINK

President McCain it is.

Posted by: B on January 3, 2008 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

Well 'mr insensitive' you have shown your stupidity, boorishness, and crassness. The last redneck who slandered President Kennedy in my presence was dared to exit his pickup to meet his fate.

Posted by: Jim Bowie Knife on January 3, 2008 at 8:54 AM | PERMALINK

I'd say a bigger issue isn't that people have overstimated Obama's foreign policy experience, it's that people seem to have formed the incorrect idea that he's less experienced than any of the other frontrunners in this area (or in domestic policy either, for that matter.) What are the big Clinton or Edwards experiences in foreign policy that are supposed to distinguish them from Obama?

If you want foreign policy experience, then your choice on the Democratic side is Biden. Just as the choice on the Republican side is McCain. The rest of the candidates for both parties are all more or less neophytes in the area.

Posted by: Doug T on January 3, 2008 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

Hillary''s problem, if she has one, is too much Bill. For reasons I don't understand she's featured him in her campaign. He detracts from the "first women president" selling point and is a distraction because of his disgraceful behaviour during his presidency.

While not an evil doing, Bill's outworn his welcome with me and by putting him front and center in her campaign she undermines her own attributes--which seem less than advertised. Bill should go work in the kitchen--alone.

Posted by: Paul on January 3, 2008 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

I'd say a bigger issue isn't that people have overstimated Obama's foreign policy experience, it's that people seem to have formed the incorrect idea that he's less experienced than any of the other frontrunners in this area (or in domestic policy either, for that matter.) What are the big Clinton or Edwards experiences in foreign policy that are supposed to distinguish them from Obama?

Doug T's right. Obama's not my first choice, and I agree with Chrissy that to a large extent the media and voters have filled in the lines and created their own version of him. But calling him an inexperienced newbie in comparison to Edwards and Clinton is silly.

Posted by: shortstop on January 3, 2008 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

I just wish JFK had shared his brilliant insight into the futility of fighting the Vietnamese with the rest of us before he was shot down.

What was stopping him, I wonder?

If Kennedy knew so damn much in '63, why did my cousin get killed there in '67?

Posted by: wobbly on January 3, 2008 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

Could someone please tell me what Edward's foreign policy experience is? And please don't even mention the phone call to Musharraf. A lot of people don't quite agree that it was a good call, no pun intended!

Posted by: GOD on January 3, 2008 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

Well, there's certainly a similarity that is overlooked in that piece between Kennedy, Bush, and Clinton: All were insiders or politically groomed for their positions. To me it's not an endearing quality.

Posted by: Quinn on January 3, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Widmer's tea seems pretty weak here. I can see the advantages of having a father who was ambassador to England in '38. But we're supposed to be awed by a pair of whirlwind tours (only five and then seven weeks) to a couple of dozen nations in '51? That taught him the futility of Vietnam even though these trips didn't appear to affect his policy very much? But at least he made fun of the French? And then Widmer spends two whole paragraphs of a very short article criticizing Obama for having been described by the Boston Globe, NOT HIS OWN WORDS OR CAMPAIGN, as "intuitive"!

I'm pretty unconvinced.

Posted by: Royko on January 3, 2008 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

A silly piece, based entirely on the false premise that JFK's Presidency was a hallmark for future Presidents to follow, particularly in foreign policy. So what if Obama hasn't engaged in the same sort of prolonged skirt-chasing junkets that Jack Kennedy did in the 1950's.

Posted by: Steve Smith on January 3, 2008 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

What set Kennedy apart foreign policy wise, was his relationship with Kruchev. They seemed to understand each other to an extent and since the foreign policy of the day largely revolved around both of them, it worked out rather well.

In other areas he looked average and competent which is not a mark against him.

Posted by: MNPundit on January 3, 2008 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

Another difference between them was the JFK was politically moderate. He favored a bigger military and tax cuts for the rich.

Posted by: ex-liberal on January 3, 2008 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

A rebuttal to the two main criticisms of Obama in the article, proving the entire argument to vacuous:

If that childhood experience had a genuine impact beyond teaching him the obvious truth that the world is diverse, then he needs to make it clearer how he will translate that knowledge into sound policy.

Obama has done this. One only need look at his explanation to the Des Moines Register editorial board of why he was opposed to Iraq in the first place. I wish I could find the link to the video, I had it bookmarked on my last computer, but last spring in an interview with them, he discussed how, growing up in Indonesia and having family in Kenya, he understood how the strong tribal loyalties would be a major impediment to a democratic Iraq in a power vacuum, which was why he felt the war was bad idea philosophically, and not just run badly. Just one example.

Like Kennedy, Obama has taken several long trips as a lawmaker—through the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. But there is one noteworthy gap in Obama’s itinerary: except for a brief stopover in London, returning from Russia in 2005, he has apparently never been to Western Europe since launching his political career. What renders this gap especially surprising is that Obama is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe.

As for complaints about Obama's travel itinerary, the guy hasn't exactly had a ton of opportunities to travel abroad. Two major trips is pretty strong for his first two years in the Senate, especially when you consider where he went. As commenter DanK notes in the Steve Clemons post on talking points memo:

It looks like Obama's emphasis, for his first few years in the Senate at least, has been to visit the "front lines", so to speak, of US strategic competition and conflict. The Caspian region, Africa and the Middle East are the places where the US, Russia and China are now hotly contesting for influence, clients and access against a background of political instability and war.

Djibouti, for example, is the location of the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa; which Obama visited on his trip. Kenya also is a vital African relationship for the US. The US, I believe, still has an agreement with Kenya that allows it access to the port of Mombasa and airfields at Embakasi and Nanyuki. Obama's trip to Kenya sparked an outbreak of "Obama-mania," and so in itself contributed to positive US-Kenyan relations aside from any other business Obama did there.

Chad is a crucial spot where the US appears to be cooperating with our new best buddies the French on a sub-Saharan strategy.

Obama's trips have tended to deal with substantive issues, not just fact-finding, networking and schmoozing with old friends. In advance of his trip to Africa, Obama and Leahy successfully passed an amendment to provide $13 million in assistance to the DRC for military reform and election assistance. However, his trip to the Congo was canceled, I believe, because of intensified violence.

His trip to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan with Dick Lugar was concerned with keeping tabs on Nunn-Lugar activities, and was followed up with the Lugar-Obama bill to extend Nunn-Lugar to conventional weapons proliferation.

In South Africa, Obama vigorously and publicly criticized the South African government's AIDS response, and he and his wife took an AIDS test there themselves.

It's not like some like Widmer doesn't know these things...he's just dishonestly omitting them. This is just agitprop for wonks, dressed up as "substantive" "analysis".

Posted by: Michael on January 3, 2008 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

To be quite frank, I think the story about Edwards' call to Musharraf is a load of crap. The day after the assassination of his main political rival, the leader of a country of, what, 200 million people is going to spend A HALF-HOUR on the phone with a PRIVATE CITIZEN in a foreign country who is out hustling up votes in the sticks? Either Musharraf and Edwards are such close friends that it makes me distrust the latter, or the former is just plain nuts - or Edwards made the whole thing up.

Posted by: lampwick on January 3, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Should McCain win through I would like to see a major push to expose the Vietnam war myths from the netroots side. (I know it certainly won't come from the Vichy-Drum type Dem appeaser's)
This especially applies to ' We won' McCain but also to every other warmongering GOPster ( excluding the great Ron Paul)
The Vietnam war - as a major league disaster - knocks amateur's like Cheney into the bush leagues.
Objectively and overall the Dems look worse than the Repugs largely because of the war in SE Asia. Not the current war in SW Asia.

Obama - Edwards in 08!

Posted by: professor rat on January 3, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Mistake with html coding, sorry...but I need to attribute everything but the last short paragraph at the end of my previous post to user DanK at talking points memo. The entire run-down of the strategic importance of all of Obama's visits were his, not mine.

Posted by: Michael on January 3, 2008 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK


Posted by: mhr on January 3, 2008 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

Yea, Obama's experience is really more like Lincoln's than Kennedy's.

Posted by: Ross Smith on January 3, 2008 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

The article really struck me as just sort of silly.

I concede of course that Obama was not there when the House of Commons debated Munich or at the UN Charter conference. Then again, none of the other candidates were there either.

Of course Widmer's point is that Obama's experience is qualitatively different, but he really doesn't make a very convincing argument.

Posted by: Jim D on January 3, 2008 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

This entire discussion may be reprised during the general election campaign, but it's irrelevant now.

The Democratic Party has three candidates for President right now indisputably experienced in foreign policy, and Democrats have indicated in every poll that they are not interested in any of them. There is no good reason to think that Sen. Obama's experience in this area is significantly less substantial than that of either Sen. Edwards or Sen. Clinton.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Obama's experience isn't much -- all the scrutiny of where he stamped his passport or how much he learned as a preadolescent in Indonesia notwithstanding. A judgment that he can handle as President a field in which he has done little substantial work is basically a guess, a wish, something to be taken on faith. That's no more than one could say about such a judgment in Clinton's case or Edwards', but given that foreign policy and related subects are salient right now the Democrats' resolve to nominate a foreign policy novice -- who if elected would be the third foreign policy novice in a row to serve as President -- is noteworthy.

Posted by: Zathras on January 3, 2008 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

What they share in common, is youth, good looks, and the ability to inspire. If combined with a gaggle of good advisors that would be the best combination. With Obama we know we would have the first half of the package. Maybe the netroots can start working on the second half.

Posted by: bigTom on January 3, 2008 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

Obama knows more about the "drug problem", having explored marijuana and cocaine as a youth.

When John Kennedy was young his family was grooming him for the presidency.

That's a vast difference.

Posted by: MarkH on January 3, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

"When John Kennedy was young his family was grooming him for the presidency."

Actually the Kennedys were grooming President Kennedy's older brother Joseph for the presidency. After Joseph died in a daring WWII mission, the presidential mantle fell to John.

Posted by: Chris Brown on January 3, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Actually Joe Kennedy senior was grooming John's older brother to be president. John became plan B after Joe was killed in WWII.

John's WWII experience was pretty mixed. Definitely a case of a poor little rich kid getting to drive a PT boat (a least rich kids served then) His was the only PT boat sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the war, a result some say of not keeping an adequate watch. He was very protective of his shipwrecked crew, but some of his actions (swimming out in the straights at night to try to flag down a PT boat) were pretty irrational. All in all he was lucky to come out with a medal and not a court martial.

Posted by: fafner1 on January 3, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

That was Kennedy's early vast foreign policy experience? He traveled a lot? Good grief.

Okay okay, that gives him more foreign policy experience than that idiot in the W.H. now. But come on. Travel???

Don't get me wrong: I love to travel. And an alert (conscious?) traveler can certainly learn a valuable "hands across the water" lesson. But foreign policy experience??! Come on!

Posted by: Lindy on January 3, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Lindy, perhaps you should familiarize yourself with John Kennedy's first book, Why England Slept, which was a very well-received detailed foreign policy analysis of the political paralysis that gripped the United Kingdom in the immediate wake of both Hitler's rise to power and his aggressive moves toward the Rhineland, Austria and Czeckoslovakia.

At age 21, he was sitting in the British House of Commons with his father, Ambassador Joe Kennedy, listening first-hand to the debate over the ratification ofthe just-negotiated Munich accord with Germany.

If you don't consider that to be experience, then it is incumbwnt upon you to tell us what you think it is.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 3, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK
He favored a bigger military and tax cuts for the rich. ex-lax at 10:27 AM
As usual either you deliberately misrepresent the Kennedy era or you are so proud of your ignorance you take special pride in flaunting it.

…it was a demand-side cut. "The Revenue Act of 1964 was aimed at the demand, rather than the supply, side of the economy," said Arthur Okun, one of Kennedy's economic advisers.
This distinction, taught in Economics 101, seldom makes it into the Washington sound-bite wars. A demand-side cut rests on the Keynesian theory that public consumption spurs economic activity. Government puts money in people's hands, as a temporary measure, so that they'll spend it….

…the mediocre John Kerry….meatheadrepublican at 10:56 AM

Unlike the Vietnam war hero George W. Bush who couldn't be bothered to show up for his medical.

Posted by: Mike on January 3, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

fafner1: "John's WWII experience was pretty mixed. Definitely a case of a poor little rich kid getting to drive a PT boat (a least rich kids served then) His was the only PT boat sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the war ..."

Where did you get that from -- watching reruns of ?

PT Boat duty was one of the most hazardous combat assignments one could pull in the U.S. Navy during the war.

Further, LT Kennedy served in the Solomon Islands, scene of some of the most vicious close-quarter naval battles in the Pacific theatre. In one night's action alone, near Savo Island on the night of 10 February 1943, fire from 20 Japanese destroyers sank 5 of the 11 PT Boats that attempted to interrupt the Japanese evacuation of troops from Guadalcanal.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 3, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Donald from Hawaii -

My mistake, I met to say the only PT boat rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Given a PT boat is faster and more maneuverable, getting rammed by a destroyer does raise questions about the adequacy of the watch. Kennedy's boat was undamaged and near dead in the water when it was rammed.

By the way I have been to the Solomons twice, and to Rabaul once, so no I didn't pick this up from reruns. We had a particularly good tour of the Guadalcanal battlefieds from a local New Zealand expat.

Posted by: fafner1 on January 3, 2008 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Sort of like the Republicans invoking Reagan.

I'm sorry, but I can't see any similarity myself. I didn't know Jack Kennedy, but senator Obama, you're no Jack Kennedy (which is a plus, Kennedy being vastly overrated. His legacy is somewhat intact due to being martyred before being exposed. Can you just imagine what the liberal mainstream media would have done to Nixon if he had been a libertine who shared mistresses with Sam "Momo" Giancana and had all sorts of 007 plots to assassinate Castro, and so forth? They'd have called him mad.)

Posted by: Luther on January 3, 2008 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

This is ridiculous. The suggestion that Kennedy's world tours were more substantively meaningful than Obama's upbringing and world travels is silly.

They bough sought out these experiences, and seem to have learned from them--the comment above that Obama noted the importance of tribal loyalties is important. It's something that most Americans simply aren't primed to notice, and don't intuitively factor into their analyses. That's insight from experience.

This idea that Obama is inexperienced relative to his predecessors or his opponents is simply stupid. I'm tired of it. This isn't a job where you can take the prerequisites, get passing grades, and be magically qualified.

Posted by: anonymous on January 3, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

I believe Why England Slept was mainly the work product of Arthur Krock, an old-time Beltway columnist who used to do a lot of the ghostwriting for the Kennedy Family (which isn't to say JFK didn't make some contributions to the book, which was ostensibly his graduate thesis).

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