Thursday, May 3, 2012


I just started volume 4 of Robert Caro's massive biography of Lyndon Johnson (unfortunately there is about a 10 year wait for each volume, and this installment only takes us to around 1964, meaning that we can expect the Vietnam volume to come out in approximately 2022). As might be expected, the new book includes a mini-biography of John F. Kennedy. Caro explains why Johnson underestimated Kennedy as an opponent in 1960, and why he probably would not have, had Johnson been more familiar with Kennedy's struggles.  Kennedy appeared to Johnson to be a playboy who got elected with the substantial help of his father's money. Kennedy did not seem to work very hard, and accomplished very little in Congress. What Johnson did not seem to realize was how hard Kennedy had worked to campaign for office, despite the crippling effects of his very serious illnesses, and how strategic (as well as being necessitated by illness) his frequent absences from Congress might have been.

Even though it seems that almost every Senator dreams of becoming president, the Senate is actually a difficult place from which to run for the presidency, as Kennedy apparently realized. That's because no matter how a Senator votes on particular issues, even if he is well serving his constituents, he is going to alienate large segments of the national electorate. Although 16 senators later became president, Kennedy was only the second president elected while he was still serving as Senator. (Harding was the first, and Obama was the third.) Kennedy had presidential ambitions from at least the time he was elected to the House, and must have realized that staying too long in the Senate, and accumulating too much of a record, would not be helpful to that goal. What turned out to be most helpful was his role at the 1956 Democratic national convention, where he narrated a widely-seen film, and also unsuccessfully challenged Senator Kefauver for the vice-presidential spot. That dramatically-televised battle made Kennedy famous. Kennedy was also a ferocious campaigner, and spent much of his time outside of Washington, where he made valuable connections, and built up a strong organization. Johnson, on the other hand, thought he could win the nomination in 1960 by doing his job as Majority Leader, and relying on his ties to other Senators and Congressmen.

Like Kennedy, Barack Obama is also a skilled and energetic campaigner, who accumulated a scant record in the U.S. Senate, spending much of his time as a Senator outside of Washington. And like Kennedy, Barack Obama made his national mark at the previous Democratic convention, in Obama's case by giving an electrifying keynote speech in 2004. Kennedy and Obama both overcame more experienced primary opponents who took for granted their superior position in running for the highest office. Both Kennedy and Obama relied on their relative youth and freshness to win election, but also won because they had better campaign organizations and better strategies than their opponents. And both chose very experienced masters of the Senate as their vice-presidents. Kennedy, however, shut Johnson out of power during his presidency, as was the custom until that time; while Obama has made Biden an active participant since he took office. Unlike Kennedy, Obama was also successful, especially in his first two years in office, in getting an ambitious agenda passed by Congress. Kennedy fumbled a bit as president initially, and Kennedy's agenda--and much more--was ultimately pushed through Congress by Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. That story comprises most of this new book.

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