Fifty year have now passed since the presidency of John F. Kennedy and one thing is obvious: the US Democratic Party has never escaped the ghost of his memory. True, no member of the Kennedy family has ever been on the presidential ticket in the years since (Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, came the closest as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972). But consciously or unconsciously, the Democrats have repeatedly opted for the man they have perceived to be closest to the charismatic, idealistic Kennedy ideal as their candidate for the presidency. The fact that the Kennedy name has since been tarnished by revelations about his prolific sex life, his dealings with the Mafia and by harsh reassessments of his presidency has made no difference.
Admittedly, Lyndon B. Johnson, the tall garrulous Texan succeeded Kennedy in 1963 could not have been less like the affluent charming young president. Hubert Humphrey, who went down to a narrow defeat against JFK’s old foe Richard Nixon in 1968 was hardly a dead ringer for Kennedy either. Like Johnson, he had even run against JFK for the nomination in 1960 and been defeated. But Johnson, Humphrey and George McGovern, the party’s candidate in 1972 were all essentially Kennedy substitutes picked simply because the real thing was unavailable. Had he not been assassinated when he was on the verge of winning the nomination in 1968, Bobby Kennedy not Humphrey would have been nominated and perhaps beaten Nixon in 1968. Likewise Ted Kennedy, the remaining son would most likely have been the candidate in 1972 had it not been for the scandal attached to the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969. History could have been very different.
However, from 1976 onward, the Democrats plucked for Kennedy-alikes almost every chance they got. Jimmy Carter, was a southerner and in many ways a more intelligent and decent man than JFK had ever been. Yet his blonde hair and broad grin gave him a Kennedy-esque air which undoubtedly helped him win the presidency in 1976. These qualities were not enough to prevent Carter from facing a serious challenge in the primaries from the real thing from an actual Kennedy (Ted), when the president ran for re-election in 1980: a resurgent Ted Kennedy when he ran for re-election in 1980.
The Eighties saw a wealth of revelations about the Kennedys and what Seymour Hersh described as the “dark side of Camelot”. But Democrats were still mad keen on the young dynamic Kennedy-esque Gary Hart who was soon seen as the candidate to beat in 1988. But politicians could not behave as freely as they had in Kennedy’s time. When rumours emerged that Hart had spent time on a yacht (perhaps appropriately entitled “Monkey Business”) with a model named Donna Rice, Hart’s prospects of reaching the White House were destroyed.
The final nominee in 1988, Governor Michael Dukakis was physically short in stature, of Greek heritage,in his fifties and bore no physical similarity to Kennedy whatsoever. Yet like JFK he was a Massachusetts politician and consciously attempted to echo much of Kennedy’s rhetoric. He talked about “meeting the challenge of the next American frontier” just as Kennedy had spoken of the “New Frontier” in 1960. Dukakis and Hart weren’t the only ones impersonating JFK that year with future Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden both evoking the murdered president during their own unsuccessful bids for the party nomination.
But the prize for emulating JFK most ineptly in 1988 actually goes to a Republican, George HW Bush’s running mate, Dan Quayle. After being widely derided after numerous gaffes for his inexperience, Quayle unwisely compared himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate. Quayle’s assertion that he was technically as experienced as Kennedy had been in 1960 led to one of the most memorable TV debate put downs ever from Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle’s more senior opponent: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bush and Quayle went onto beat Dukakis and Bentsen. But Quayle’s reputation never recovered.
No one has linked themselves to Kennedy so effectively as Bill Clinton in 1992. A southerner from a working class family, Bill Clinton nevertheless bore something of a physical likeness to Kennedy and like Dukakis evoked the New Frontier with his own less catchy “New Covenant”. Clinton had even met Kennedy when the president visited the teenager’s school in 1962. Pictures of the two men shaking hands projected onscreen at that year’s party convention reinforced the link even more. Clinton went onto become the only Democrat since FDR to win two consecutive terms of office.
The year 2004 witnessed the coming of a new JFK: another war hero, the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee since Jack Kennedy himself and also the Massachusetts-born scion of a wealthy American family. Yet John Forbes Kerry did not capture the public’s imagination as John Fitzgerald Kennedy had. He lacked Kennedy’s charisma and could not survive the barbs of a particularly vicious Bush campaign.
Now we have Barack Obama, the first black US president. The first president to be born after Kennedy’s inauguration, Obama’s election would have been unthinkable in Kennedy’s time. Indeed, many would have found the prospect unlikely even a few short years ago.
Youthful and charismatic an orator as Obama is, it’s tempting to think that the term Kennedy-esque has been bandied around rather loosely in the last fifty years. None of the Democrats nominated since JFK have actually had that much in common with the 35th president. Indeed, if being youthful, charismatic and dynamic are enough to make you Kennedy-like then Franklin Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan and other politicians from an earlier time were surely “Kennedy-esque” before the word had been invented.
Yet from Jimmy Carter’s grin to Bill Clinton’s New Covenant there’s no denying, Democrats have sought to recapture the Kennedy magic time and time again.
It could be worse. Since the 1980s, Republicans have produced the mediocre and decrepit likes of Senators Bob Dole and John McCain in a fruitless bid to find the next Ronald Reagan. On reflection, perhaps the Democrats’ quest to find a new JFK is not such a bad thing after all.