The Boston Phoenix September 28 - October 5, 2000

[Features]

Debating JFK

Tuesday's debate takes place in the shadow of JFK's legacy. Al Gore, George W. Bush, and Kennedy have much in common, but this year's candidates pale in comparison to the real thing.

by Seth Gitell

[Al & Dubya] On Tuesday, Texas governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Albert D. Gore Jr. will converge on UMass Boston's Columbia Point campus to joust in the shadow of one of the nation's most high-profile political shrines: the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. Both candidates made much of JFK's legacy at their conventions -- Bush's video biography featured footage of Kennedy, and Gore held his convention in Los Angeles, the site of the 1960 convention that nominated JFK. But both candidates look parochial and timid in comparison to the 35th president.

Bush was right to be scared of coming here. And Gore, who's betrayed not one hint of nervousness about the coming debate, should be. Even if no one says it, many observers of the debate -- the press, the pundits, and the public -- will be comparing GWB and ADG to JFK. And there's simply no way the two men running for president will measure up. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: Al? George? You're no Jack Kennedy. Not even close.

And we're worse off for it.


It's no wonder that the Kennedy Library is the most visited presidential library: it's a marvel of myth-making. I.M. Pei's magnificent design juts out dramatically into Dorchester Bay; inside, the smartly edited speeches and carefully chosen artifacts show Kennedy at his best. But strip away the schmaltz and you see a memorial to a youthful, energetic candidate who, by the time of his 1960 candidacy, had already experienced enough of life, government, and war to have settled on a coherent world view that synthesized foreign and domestic policies. Kennedy took full advantage of the blessings of his upbringing and developed a strong sense of himself -- outside the shadow of his father. Both Bush and Gore could have done the same as young men, but they didn't.

On the surface, Kennedy seems to have quite a bit in common with Gore and Bush. All three grew up as sons of privilege and scions of powerful men. Joseph P. Kennedy, the president's father, was the wealthiest of the three patriarchs. A Harvard graduate and self-made businessman, he grew rich from ventures in banking, liquor, real estate, Hollywood, and the stock market. Bush's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, made his money in the oil business and then embarked on public service in Congress, in an ambassadorship to China, and, ultimately, in the presidency. Al Gore Sr. was an influential senator;

his children grew up in DC's Fairfax Hotel, which gave their father easy access to his family while he worked in the Senate.

The Kennedy Library's 17-minute introductory video to JFK's life doesn't back away from the president's privileged background; it shows how as a young man Kennedy not only acknowledged it, but used it to his advantage. We hear Kennedy's voice describing his college years -- the same years his father served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to Great Britain. "I took half a year off in 1939 to work in the American embassy in Paris," Kennedy says, adding that he took time off from that posting to tour Europe, including Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

The contrast here with George W. Bush is striking. Just as the elder Kennedy presided over the chancellery in London at a time of international ferment, the elder Bush served as Nixon's ambassador to the United Nations and to the People's Republic of China right after Nixon made his famous visit to China. But whereas Kennedy used his father's diplomatic connections as a chance to learn about the world, the younger Bush appears to have deliberately shunned any experience offered by his father's foreign postings. According to Bill Minutaglio's biography of Bush, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (Times Books, 1999), Bush remained thoroughly apolitical throughout Watergate and détente, even as his father appeared on television with Nixon. Critics of Kennedy say that he was an unfocused, pleasure-seeking youth who used his father's credentials to pad his résumé. Even if we accept that view, however, we still end up with a young candidate who was far more engaged with the volatile world around him than Bush ever was.

There's no hint in the Kennedy Library -- or in other treatments of Kennedy's life, for that matter -- that Kennedy's early years were anything other than what they were: life in a wealthy but highly competitive family. The library is filled with photos of the young Kennedys at play, and there's a striking picture of the whole clan decked out in black-tie formal wear before a London engagement. Compare this honest embrace of the good life with the bizarre identity issues that both Bush and Gore seem to struggle with. At nearly every opportunity, Gore stresses his deep roots in Tennessee. From the folksy excesses of the C&W fundraiser at the Park Plaza in September (complete with bales of hay imported to Boston to add authenticity to the event), one would never have guessed that Gore spent most of his early life in the nation's capital. During his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, Gore said more about his father's time as a schoolteacher than as a US senator. And his elite education at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, and Harvard University is the last thing that Gore, the fighting populist, wants us hear about.

Bush, in his own way, is just as disingenuous about his upbringing. Sure, he grew up in Midland, Texas -- but his father soon sent him off to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and then to Yale. After that, Bush earned an MBA from Harvard. His education was just as elite as that of Kennedy, who attended the Choate School in Connecticut and then went to Harvard. But you didn't hear much about Andover in the down-home movie about Bush screened at the Republican convention in Philadelphia.

To be fair, presidential politics today are much different from presidential politics circa 1960. Now more than ever, America is a nation of meritocrats, and the public simply doesn't trust anyone seen as having achieved success by clutching his daddy's coattails. Contrast that with Kennedy's time, when people still remembered Franklin D. Roosevelt, another son of privilege who appealed to the working masses.

Today, both Bush and Gore must downplay their elite upbringings. Bush, in particular, is often accused of having gotten where he is on the strength of his famous father's name. But the thing about Kennedy is that he wore his privilege easily. Kennedy acknowledged his upbringing with grace. Although Bush and Gore may not have that option, a little less contrived humility might go a long way. In Gore's case, that means accepting that he's a product of both Tennessee and Washington, DC. In Bush's case, that means acknowledging that he's as much a product of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they drop their r's, as he is of Midland, Texas, where they drop their g's -- as he is so fond of doing.

Kennedy was a product of both Boston and America as a whole -- and he never tried to hide it. The 1965 biography Kennedy (written by Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's speechwriter, special counsel, and literary alter ego) serves as the literary equivalent of a convention bio-pic. Contrast Gore's reminiscences of his schoolteacher father and Bush's recollections of life in Midland with what Sorensen had to say: "Jack Kennedy loved Boston and Boston loved Jack Kennedy, but he was always more than a Bostonian. . . . He was born in the Boston suburb of Brookline. He was brought up in his formative years in Bronxville, New York, where his father had moved the entire family in the belief that an Irish Catholic businessman and his children would have less opportunity in Boston. . . . When he launched his first campaign in 1946 . . . for Congress in Boston's hard-boiled Eleventh District, from which James Michael Curley was retiring, he knew almost no one in the city except his grandfather. "

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell@phx.com.


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