Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hopeful Experience/Experiential Hope

The Kennedy clan's recent endorsement of Barack Obama has the press likening Obamamania to a new Camelot. Obama's beautiful rhetorical abilities leave many of those left of center (and some right of center) swooning over a perceived ability to "bring the country together".

JFK asked us to think not of what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. He represented a trans-partisan coalescing of the American Ideal . . . or is it represents?

No, I wasn't around for JFK. I am not able to give a first-hand account the 1960s fabric of America. But wasn't this the age of police turning dogs and fire-hoses on American citizens? If Americans were truly brought together by JFK's message of hope, why was the election of 1960 so agonizingly close?

The truth is that while America may be existentially polarized today, it was certainly civically polarized in 1960. For us JFK represented something transcendent for America, but the hard psychological truth may just be that it is only what could have been that we long for, not what was. Dallas tragically took care of that.

Hillary Clinton was roundly pilloried for her assertion that it took LBJ for America to realize Martin Luther King's dream. But it was in the end LBJ, the uncharismatic technocratic former congressman, who saw America through its civic crisis of the 60s. Kennedy for some then, and for many more now, represented hope, but the historical change came in a different form.

Perhaps this is simply a message for the cynical. But even the most clearheaded and logical have profound political differences. Is it possible for America to truly come together? And if so, what banner could we possibly all share?

I seem to have hit a little on something.


Blogger Jacob said...

Well, you can't argue the counterfactual - i.e., what if Kennedy had lived to be re-elected, or what if Johnson hadn't received the wellspring of support emanating from JFK's death - but overall, yes, LBJ pushed through a lot of civil rights legislation (with an overwhelming majority in Congress), and his rhetoric better matched his action than JFK. I would also say that LBJ had a ridiculous knowledge of the Senate, which can't be matched by either Clinton (7 years) or Obama (3 years).

On the other hand, LBJ deepened our involvement in Vietnam and was so badly damaged by that he did not run for reelection in 1968. I'm not sure Clinton should invite a comparison to another politician who was good on domestic policy and disastrous on foreign policy.

The broader, less historical point I would make is that H. Clinton and Obama represent two myths - the "get things done" myth and the “bipartisan” myth, respectively. I’m realistic/cynical enough about political institutions that I don’t really think any leader, no matter how knowledgable or invested in “making government work,” actually can steer the government strongly in any one direction. What presidents of the US do have, in terms of power, is a) appointing people to head bureaucratic institutions in the executive branch, b) nominating Supreme Court justices, c) deciding whether or not we go to war (well, actually that’s Congress’ job, but ever since Vietnam…you know the rest), and d) using the bully pulpit to convince Congress/the public to go along with his/her ideas and programs. If you accept those limitations, then it doesn’t seem (to me) that “getting things done” is something a president actually does, especially given the enormous complexity of government. S/he, in most cases, delegates that authority to others – the proverbial devil being in the details (of the bureaucracy). Point b is a wash in terms of Clinton vs. Obama, and c and d are decidedly in Obama’s favor.

February 6, 2008 at 6:58 AM  
Blogger David said...

I would argue that d goes in Clinton's favor and that c is an unknowable theoretical.

February 8, 2008 at 6:06 PM  
Blogger Meg said...

d? Clintons favor? Never. Half the country decided they hated her ages ago. And I try not to harp on it, because what is done is done, but she made the wrong choice on C already, becuase it was the politically viable choice. All nuance aside, at the time, we all knew that was a vote to go to war.

February 8, 2008 at 6:11 PM  

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