It's Not a New JFK We Need in Obama

01.29.2008 | POLITICS

Did John F. Kennedy ride the winds of change into office or was he the "wind beneath our wings?" Either way, his election signified that, back on firm peace-time footing after President Eisenhower's two terms, America was ready to move ahead with "great vigah."

With his uplifting oratory and youthful good looks, Barack Obama has drawn comparisons to Kennedy. Nor has he been quick to disabuse us of the notion that he can recover JFK's fallen torch.

For instance, in the spirit of JFK's legendary challenge to "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," Barack issued a "call to serve" back in July.

Describing we Americans as "our greatest resource -- not our bombs, guns, or dollars," he promised to increase national service opportunities if elected. He'd double the size of the Peace Corps and expand the AmeriCorps program. Also, he'd create a Craigslist-like network to connect volunteers, including retirees, with opportunities for service.

The first to make the "linkage [between Kennedy and Obama] explicit and [give] it official sanction," according to the Telegraph of London was, Kennedy's chief speechwriter and long-time associate, Theodore Sorensen.

"Mr Kennedy reached the hearts of voters," said Sorensen. "And so does Obama."

He gave short shrift to the "experience" question that dogs Obama. "Judgment is the single most important criterion for selecting a president. . ." which, Sorensen continued, Obama "demonstrated in his position against the Iraq war even before it started."

It's one thing when a non-politician who also happens to be Caroline Kennedy, weighs in with a New York Times oped this Sunday bearing the none-too-subtle title, "< A HREF="">A President Like My Father."

"I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them," she writes. "I believe I have found the man who could be that president."

But it's another when experienced Washington hands like not only Sorensen but Gregory Craig, one of Bill Clinton's impeachment lawyers, who might logically be expected to support Hillary, are swept away by Obama.

"The election of Obama will not only change the players in Washington," Sorensen said. "It'll change the game itself."

Hold on there, old-timer. That's light years beyond what the election of Kennedy, who was more of a walking, talking zeitgeist than a man with a plan, accomplished. In fact, what Sorensen is conjuring up sounds more like a new Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev? A Russian leader? Not the Gorbachev who dragged his feet on withdrawing from Afghanistan and who, aside from freeing high-profile dissidents, failed to inspire with his record on human rights.

But the Gorbachev of glasnost (government transparency and freedom of information) and perestroika (restructuring of the economy). As well as the Gorbachev who yielded to the Eastern bloc's nations to determine their own affairs.

In another words, we need a president who will roll back the secrecy of the Bush years and break up the media monopolies. Also, he needs to take the economy apart and put it back together again.

Okay, so Gorbachev didn't do too well with the second part. But we're not asking Obama to dismantle capitalism as the then-Soviet leader did socialism. Empower financial regulators, reduce our military commitment overseas, and draw down the defense budget and he'd be off to a good start.

All of these reforms are rendered moot, however, if we're not around to enjoy them. If, that is, the ensuing "Great Society," to borrow a term from JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson, were laid low by a nuclear attack on an American city (or seven, if al Qaeda had its way).

This is the territory into which Gorbachev launched his most daring raids. First, in 1985, he announced that the Soviet Union would no longer deploy intermediate-range nuclear forces (INFs) in Eastern Europe. Later that year, he proposed that both his country and the US slice their nuclear arsenals in half.

The next year, at the memorable Reykjavik summit, Gorbachev got Ronald Reagan to agree in principle to his plan for removal of all INFs from Europe, as well as to draw them down worldwide. Caught up in Gorbachev's enthusiasm, Reagan expressed a willingness to join Russia in eliminating all nuclear weapons in 10 years.

In the end, though, Reagan clung to his blankie, the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars). Gorbachev feared SDI would lead to nukes in space, not to mention leave the Soviet defense establishment with the impression he'd been played. Their dreams of saving the world came crashing back down to earth.

Still, the summit paved the way for the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. Between the two nations, almost 2,700 of the weapons were destroyed within four years.

Where does Obama stand on nuclear weapons? He's worked with Senator Dick Lugar on his and Sam Nunn's Nuclear Threat Initiative, which provides for locking down nuclear materials in the former Soviet states.

However unrealistically, he seeks to make that a done deal by the end of his first term. (Though when it comes to nuclear terrorism, Hillary Clinton has seen Obama and raised him with her plan to create the position of Senior Advisor to the President for the Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism.)

Obama also seeks to abolish intermediate-range nuclear weapons once and for all. Furthermore, he plans to end the production of highly enriched uranium, ensure that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert, and build no new weapons.

Sounds promising. Still, in his self-appointed incarnation as the repository of all our hopes, Obama must take the next step. We need nothing less than a leap of faith into a future with no nuclear weapons, their budgets freed up for social programs.

One can counter that, with terrorism, times have changed. But, during the Reagan years, the US was arming itself to the teeth (to bankrupt the Soviet Union, remember?). In fact, Russian military leaders actually thought we were planning a first strike.

Yet Gorbachev's response to the extremities of that threat couldn't have been, by most standards -- especially American -- more counter-intuitive. He sought to disarm.

In "Arsenals of Folly" (Knopf, 2007), the third in his proposed quartet on the nuclear age, Richard Rhodes reprints a letter Gorbachev wrote. Obama would do well to heed his words:

"Don't think that something will stop me, that there is a threshold through which I shall not be able to pass."

"I accept without embarrassment. . . . Everything that is needed for the very deepest transformation of the system."

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