He rose quickly from the Senate to the Presidency, using his speaking ability, energy and youthful image to overcome his sparse record. His young family helped to make him relatable, and overcome prejudice against his minority status. He came into office with an ambitious agenda, only to see it bottled up by an obstructionist Republican Congress. Late into his first term, he had little to show for all of his talk.
It’s a cliche to compare Obama and Kennedy, but reading Robert Caro’s fourth tome on the life of Lyndon Johnson, the similarities sometimes jump off the page. There were obvious differences as well. Kennedy had much more money to aid his rise, and he also had far more physical ailments hindering him. Obama came into office with a range of problems (two wars, a financial meltdown) that Kennedy didn’t.
But, assuming a tragedy doesn’t occur, we have an interesting glimpse into how history might have gone if Dealey Plaza never occurred.
For all sorts of public figures, death is often a good career move, especially if much of the person’s appeal comes from youthful charisma. My favorite counterfactual… what if Marlon Brando had died at 24 (with Streetcar, The Wild One, and Waterfront under his belt), and James Dean had lived to be 80, with all the decay and failure he would have experienced? Brando would have been the one on teenage walls across America, and Dean would have endured the snickers.
This isn’t to be flippant about the human costs of death. Dean never got the chance to give us his Vito Corleone. JFK never got to see his children grow up, and his assassination was a trauma that greatly wounded America.
But, there’s no doubt that the continuing cult of JFK wouldn’t exist if he had lived a long life. The passage of his agenda wouldn’t have happened if LBJ hadn’t used the skills that made him a powerful Majority Leader (one wonders whether Biden would have the same ability/juice in a similar situation). JFK is saved from the stain of Vietnam because of projections that he wouldn’t have let himself get bogged down. He never got old, and never had to face any of the stories that came out later (imagine how much differently Clinton would be viewed if his Lewinsky shenanigans had been revealed long after his death).
Again, I hope that Obama is both re-elected and lives a long time. Assuming that comes to pass, however, we’re inevitably in for a long, steady wilting of his bloom. Much like JFK, he’s shown himself to be better as a candidate than a legislator (although, with health care, he has a legislative achievement greater than anything on JFK’s record, given that the Civil Rights Bill wouldn’t have gotten passed if LBJ hadn’t taken over). To a greater extent than JFK, just his name and picture in history books will always have resonance (except for Fujimori in Peru, he’s the only example of a country electing an ethnic minority to its highest office). But he’s shown a similar inability to navigate the chilly reception he’s gotten from Congress, and to turn his ideas into action, to achieve what is possible rather than ideal. Instead of living long enough to become a villain, JFK died a hero, and his legacy is a product of it (many of his iconic images, from the Zapruder film to JFK Jr. saluting his casket to the Camelot myth, came after his death). But, as we watch the Obama administration unfold, we get a glimpse of what might have been if fate hadn’t intervened.