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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Dems desperately seeking the next JFK

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The case can be fairly made that the Democratic Party has spent the last 45 years searching for JFK. Like the star-crossed lover who broke your heart that you can never quite forget, Jack’s absence haunts the party faithful with a vague, but gnawing, institutional lament.

Of course, without the assassination, things would be different. Even Romeo’s passion would have cooled had Juliet stuck around long enough to develop a dowager’s hump and hemorrhoids. But Kennedy never grew old. Cut down in his prime, he remains forever young, heroic, quick-witted and intelligent, sporting boyish good looks, an infectious grin and near-fatal charm.

People, quite simply, loved him. Even though much of today’s electorate was born after his death, Kennedy’s Cheshire countenance still hovers over the American political landscape, leaving an impossible standard for mere feet-of-clay mortals to match.

Just because nobody can compete with a memory, doesn’t mean that nobody’s tried. The first attempt to recapture the magic came from his brother and confidant, Bobby. Alas, he too was gunned down at the peak of his popularity, further complicating the myth.

The mantel next fell to Ted. Then a young man, he was burdened by a tragic legacy of family loss, the inherited expectations of a hungry nation and his own personal demons. With the bridge at Chappaquiddick an albatross around his neck, he could never soar to the rarified heights reached by his brothers.

Gary Hart tried to fill the void and showed initial promise. He soon learned, however, that the post-Watergate press corps was not the same forgiving bunch that dismissed Kennedy’s private foibles with a wink and a nod.

Arguably, Bill Clinton came closest to claiming the title. The first Democratic president since FDR to serve two full terms, he’s a man of considerable charm — some would say “guile”— who enjoys broad popularity within the party.

Regrettably, he left much of his legacy on Monica’s dress. If he’d had a breezy affair with a sophisticated mistress, he’d merely be added to the long list of powerful men with a roving eye. However, the image of the leader of the free world playing doctor with a White House intern under a desk in the Oval Office is difficult to reconcile with greatness.

Al Gore is too wonkish for the part. He’s the kid who always did his homework, but wouldn’t let you copy. John Forbes Kerry shares the initials and, like Kennedy, is a war hero from Massachusetts. If you’ve heard him speak, you know that striking similarities end there.

The latest effort to rekindle the flame comes from the mercurial Barack Obama. Despite having a name that my spell-checker won’t recognize, he’s a handsome, charismatic, articulate candidate with a multicultural heritage and an attractive wife. Think of him as Tiger Woods in a navy blue suit.

The term “messianic” was frequently used to describe the freshman senator’s early appeal. He proved himself to be an eloquent public speaker. In the tradition of JFK, he seemed to be able to channel the dreams and aspirations of his audience, transforming himself in the process into a transcendent figure, above the petty snipes of his mundane rivals. If his call to “hope” and “change” was a bit vague, it was still a refreshing contrast to eight years of oration by the “misunderestimated” Mr. Bush.

Obama soon acquired a large and admiring cadre of youthful voters who raised a fortune for him on the Internet. For a time he seemed unbeatable despite the historically dismal track record of children’s crusades. Now, plodding through a campaign marathon that will last nearly two-thirds as long as Kennedy’s entire presidency, his silken image has begun to fray under the cruel abrasion of constant scrutiny.

The once-glib Harvard lawyer seems hesitant and uncertain while trying to distance himself from his former spiritual adviser's race-baiting anti-Americanism or explaining his Chicago business connections and his association with former members of the Weather Underground.

It appears that he may not be able to take a punch. That’s too bad because he’s locked in mortal combat with Hillary Clinton who can throw one. The only way to thwart her ambition is to cut her head off and hide it from her. Obama may salvage the nomination, but he’ll do so as McGovern, not Kennedy.

JFK will never come back — because we won’t let him …

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